Iran Nuclear Talks Reaching Fork in the Road?

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June could be a make or break month for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute between Iran and the international community, with a pair of noteworthy meetings coming amidst intensifying sanctions and tensions. The first meeting is this Friday between the United Nations nuclear watchdog and Iran, where the sides will likely discuss a potential arrangement for inspecting the latter’s nuclear program.

The talks to be held in Vienna between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran come less than two weeks before the next round of negotiations between Iran and the world powers in Moscow. With those discussions set to commence on June 18, a European Union diplomat told The Mideast Update that “preparations are underway” for the discussions.

He could not comment on whether or not additional sanctions on Iran were being considered should no progress be made in the talks, beyond saying that the EU “constantly keep our sanctions under review.”

Meanwhile, an expert on the Iranian nuclear program at an Israeli think-tank urged the P5+1—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany—to apply pressure on Iran.

Talk of a Deal

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano mentioned the June 8 meeting with Iran in comments posted on the IAEA’s website. Following a personal meeting with the Iranian negotiating team in May, Amano had announced they were working on an arrangement for clarifying concerns that should be reached soon.

On Monday, the IAEA head invited Iran “to sign and implement the Structured Approach document as soon as possible and to provide early access” to a military site suspected of housing experiments applicable to nuclear weapons. That locale, the Parchin site, was one of the areas that Dr. Emily Landau considered likely to be part of the discussions between Iran and the IAEA.

However, Landau, a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said that there have been media reports of satellite imagery of Iran cleaning up the Parchin site. “It seems pretty clear that the Iranians are trying to prepare that facility and to eliminate any incriminating evidence,” said Landau, who notes there have been past reports of “probable cleanup” at Parchin as well.

Other areas of disagreement between the two sides are access to nuclear facilities and scientists.

Now or Never?

While the meeting with the IAEA is important, the bigger event is the P5+1 talks in Moscow. Landau noted the IAEA discussion focuses on inspections, but the dispute over Tehran’s ambitions cannot be resolved only through an Iran-IAEA deal.

No apparent breakthroughs were reached in either of the first two meetings between Iran and the P5+1—held in Istanbul in April and Baghdad in May—leaving the June talks in Moscow as potentially crucial. “Nothing has been achieved so far except agreement on further talks. There could be something more going on in some of the lower-level discussions that I think are ongoing all the time,” said Landau.

“…I feel I’m repeating myself—ahead of Istanbul I said, ‘Well, we’ll see in Istanbul, hopefully there will be something concrete”; there wasn’t. The same thing ahead of Baghdad, ‘Hopefully there will be something concrete’; there wasn’t. So I’m saying it again, ‘Hopefully in Moscow.’”

When asked what specific progress they hope to achieve in the upcoming talks, an EU diplomat told The Mideast Update that it is “too early to give details at this stage.”

Landau said that the overall atmosphere at the May talks in Baghdad was worse than the Istanbul round, as concrete proposals were placed down by both sides, leading to disagreement. She said the Baghdad meetings “went from bad to worse, and then they felt that the achievement was in getting enough agreement to get a final statement that would get another round on the table.”

The EU embargo on Iranian oil is set to go into effect in July, which Landau said could pressure Iran to budge in Moscow. However, one potential stumbling stone in the talks, according to Landau, is that the West doesn’t look to be backing down on their tougher sanctions on Iran, even if Iran makes the confidence-building concessions they seek. “From [Iran’s] point of view they say, ‘Why should we concede anything, you’re going to punish us anyway,’” said Landau.

In light of all the diplomatic undercurrents, she said there’s “certainly not a lot of ground for optimism, at least so far.”

Apply Pressure

Nonetheless, Landau said in her opinion the P5+1 should increase the pressure on Iran. “I would advise pressure, pressure and more pressure,” said Landau, who believes that sanctions brought Iran back to the nuclear talks despite commentators previously predicting they would drive Tehran away.

“Iran responds to pressure, in the sense that pressure makes them back down from threats… Iran does make a rational calculus vis-à-vis the pressure that is thrown at it.”

Landau therefore said the P5+1 should emplace “tremendous pressure,” since escaping pressure is the only motivation for Iran to back off their nuclear ambitions. “If the situation in Iran becomes unbearable, then there’s a chance that they’ll back down and be willing to make a deal,” said Landau.

With the summer underway—generally considered good fighting weather in the Middle East—and tensions heightened as sanctions intensify and Iran makes more nuclear progress, Landau hopes “more extreme measures” such as a blockade of Iran or an actual military strike on their nuclear program won’t be necessary. But it remains somewhat unclear to Landau if this is truly a fork in the road or just another turn in a long process.

“I think that Iran needs to believe that the international community is serious enough that they would go through with actual military force if this proves to be just another stage in this protracted process,” said Landau.

She feels the world is “much less naïve” now regarding Iran. “I think the international community understands a lot more today about how Iran has been playing the game and I think they have less patience for these games, especially less patience for them going on and on,” said Landau.

“And so we could be reaching a point where they will show enough determination that Iran will change its approach to the negotiations. And if it doesn’t, things might move in the direction of different means with dealing with this.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, June 4, 2012)