See You in Nuclear Tehran

If someone wanted to back out of the April 13-14 meeting between Iran and the P5+1 group of international mediators to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, here is an excuse – Tehran has suddenly asked to move the venue from Istanbul to Baghdad.

If someone wanted to back out of the April 13-14 meeting between Iran and the P5+1 group of international mediators to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, here is an excuse – Tehran has suddenly asked to move the venue from Istanbul to Baghdad.

Now the question is whether the key participant in the talks, the United States, wants talks to go forward and why. On the one hand, one gets the impression that the Obama administration considers any form of communication with Tehran to be distasteful and would like to have an excuse to back out of talks. But, on the other hand, failing to produce any results is no good either.

Diplomatic games

It became clear from an April 3 interview given by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov that the future of the Istanbul talks is vague – unexpectedly, he could not confirm the time and venue of the meeting.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already said that the talks will take place in Istanbul, but now Tehran has objected to the venue. What has it suggested instead? Damascus was proposed as one option but this is below-the-belt. Tehran is now proposing Baghdad as an acceptable venue.

There should be no problem with Baghdad, as U.S. officials are still in the habit of portraying Iraq – at least for public consumption – as a model for the region.

On the other hand, the U.S. war in Iraq has produced an unexpected result. Iraq, which had been slowly recovering from its devastating war with Iran in the 1980s, has turned into Tehran’s close friend – if not the entire country, then at least the Shia part of the country and the government. The symbolism is almost the same as in Damascus, which is unpleasant.

It’s possible that the Iranians have quarreled with the Turks because Turkey has been surprisingly active in the efforts to oust Iran’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, and has started claiming second place (after Saudi Arabia) as the counterbalance to Iran in the Muslim world.

Anyway, there should be no problems with Baghdad as the venue of the meeting. American leaders visit the Iraqi capital all the time. Just this past March, Bagdad played host to the Arab League summit, and it went fine. This time we are talking about a meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers in a mid-sized conference hall without the massive police escorts that can paralyze traffic in any city.

This meeting can be held anywhere, be it London or Moscow. The P5+1 (Britain, Germany, China, Russia, the United States and France) can even meet in Tehran or in the Maldives. The subject of the talks is another matter.

Games of strategists

Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), nuclear powers are those that detonated a nuclear device prior to January 1, 1967.

Ryabkov expressed many unusual ideas in his interview. He said, for one, that too much time has passed since the last such meeting in 2009, and in this context it is best to start from scratch or hope for a breakthrough on some peripheral issue.

Moscow has said more than once that the sides are conducting these talks to agree on a step-by-step process to disentangle the Iranian nuclear knot.

The international mediators – the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – have promised to lift sanctions against Iran step by step, while Iran has promised to make its nuclear programs transparent – also step by step.

It goes without saying that it is best to keep all promises – like those that have long been made on the similar North Korean nuclear issue but have not been translated into reality so far.

The question is, will the United States accept such agreements now? Imagine that at the nuclear summit in Seoul President Barack Obama was caught on microphone instructing Hillary Clinton “to tell Mahmoud (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) that I have to postpone it until after the election.”  If the U.S. administration were to strike a deal now, the Republicans will say it is against U.S. interests and, besides, Ahmadinejad will be able to orchestrate the presidential campaign. If he violates any of the accords reached in Baghdad, the Republicans will probably win the White House.

This is why current U.S. debates on Iran (a key issue in America for years) boil down to whether Washington can afford to keep it on the backburner until next year. Nobody is putting the question like this but de facto…

This probably explains a whole series of seemingly absurd and familiar events around Iran. Secretary Clinton’s statements about Iran’s “last chance” are routine. When Iran held the latest talks with the P5+1 in 2009, this was also a “last chance.”

Talk of Washington’s all-out efforts to prevent Israel from launching a preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is also customary, just as Tehran’s threats that in the event of aggression it will shut down the Strait of Hormuz, depriving the world of oil, and strike back at American shores somehow (in a similar context Pyongyang threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of fire and also reach American shores).

The most interesting point here is an expert discussion in the United States on whether it makes sense to rock the boat. I’d like to note the financial, budget and political issues – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the other day that “dysfunction in Washington... threatens our security and raises questions about the ability of our democracy to respond to crisis.” Dysfunction means the Republican policy of cutting off money to the Democratic administration, and war against Iran requires money.

The strength of U.S. global leadership is also the subject of discussion. Michael Mandelbaum writes in his recent book, The Frugal Superpower, that history shows that pausing to recharge national batteries can be beneficial because U.S. foreign policy cannot be driven in counterproductive directions by an excess of power.

And, indeed, America is only threatened theoretically and remotely. If the chief Republican candidate calls Russia the main enemy in a fit of temper and does not see more terrifying opponents, then everything must be okay and why bother in this case?

Washington prefers to pretend that the latest round of sanctions against Iran, meant to completely block Iranian oil exports, is producing results and that Tehran is coming to its knees, albeit slowly. Oil prices will not soar because Obama has a plan, which is already being carried out. America is also making it seem that Tehran, scared by sanctions and events in Syria, is bound to be more flexible. Its sudden decision to change the venue does not mean much.

If the worst-case scenario happens – say, if some sudden provocation or the endless delay of talks allows Iran to build a nuclear weapon – the sides can meet in nuclear Tehran after January 2013.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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