The Iran Talks in Geneva: Too Soon to Tell

Thursday’s discussions between the P5-plus-one and the government of Iran were certainly interesting, but hardly earth-shaking.

The key question going into the talks concerned Iran’s intentions, and the key read for the United States and its allies is what Iran’s behavior in the talks might have to say about their ultimate intentions. Here, there were always three possibilities:

  1. The Iranians would grandstand and agree to nothing. They would “admit nothing, deny everything and make counteraccusations,” and in so doing make clear that the regime had absolutely no interest in serious compromise with the international community, were unconcerned by the threat of international sanctions, and were determined to proclaim their enmity to the West and unwilligness to abide by any additional international constraints on their nuclear program.
  2. The Iranians would demonstrate a willingness to compromise on small, but not irrelevant interests because they are sincere in wanting to reach a negotiated settlement of their differences with the West, but were wary of the West and so needed to start gradually.
  3. The Iranians would demonstrate a willingness to compromise on small, but not irrelevant interests because they had no interest in making real compromises on their nuclear program (or other issues of importance to the West) but they were hoping to avoid further sanctions if possible and recognized that creating a false process of negotiations was the best way to do this – particularly in light of last week’s bombshell revelation of the secret Qom facility. Thus, concessions would be a way to draw the sting of that revelation, as well as the bad feelings they created in Europe as a result of the brutal crackdown against their internal opposition over the summer, but would be a tactic to relieve that pressure and create circumstances that would preclude the imposition of further sanctions.

In Geneva, Iran did agree to some small, but not irrelevant compromises: agreeing to reprocess some of the low-enriched uranium manufactured at Natanz to refuel the Tehran research reactor, and agreeing to relatively near term IAEA inspections of the Qom facility. That is interesting because it does seem to rule out (1) as the Iranian position. Given the fact that the hardest line elements in the regime have consolidated their control over the government since the disputed June 12 election, that President Ahmadinejad has been extremely strident in his rhetoric since then, and that the regime has largely silenced and/or imprisoned most of the voices of moderation that previously had been important players in Iranian politics, it seemed entirely possible before the Geneva talks that the Iranians would adopt the kind of strident, no-concessions approach envisioned in the first approach above. Geneva has revealed that they did not.

Unfortunately, Geneva has done nothing to help us determine whether the Iranians are pursuing (2) or (3) from the above list. Their actions are fully consistent with both, and the vast majority of Iran experts, including most Iranians, believe that this regime means to pursue (3), but specifically because many Westerners will want to believe that they are pursuing (2) and this will maintain that fiction, and because doing so aids the Chinese and Russians in precluding the imposition of new sanctions against Iran as long as the talks are ongoing and the Iranians seem to be cooperating. Thus Geneva did not answer the most important question of all: whether the Iranians are sincere in claiming to want a negotiated settlement of the outstanding differences between Tehran and the international community.

As a final thought, even if you accept the above analysis, it is still interesting that the Iranians opted for (3) rather than (1). It suggests that they would at least prefer not to come under additional sanctions even if – as many suspect, and Iranian regime officials have claimed – they believe they can withstand them if it comes to that. But there is one other explanation, which is that it may be a sign that the Russian government is pushing the Iranians to make symbolic compromises to help Russia’s delicate diplomacy with the United States, and having nothing to do with the Iranian regime’s preferred course of action. At present, Russia wields considerable influence in Tehran, and it may be that for purposes of their own, the Russians want the Iranians to appear more reasonable so that the Russians can make the case to the United States that they are pressuring the Iranians as Washington desires. Moscow may be telling their Iranian friends something to the effect of, “don’t act completely obnoxious, because that will put us (the Russians) in a difficult position with the Americans and Europeans that we don’t want to be in. Make some minor concessions for our sake, and we’ll take care of you.”. In other words, it may not be Iranian fear of sanctions that drove them to (3) vice (1), it may be their relationship with the Russians and the fact that the Russians wanted them to seem accommodating for their own reasons.