12 October 2011

(This article was first published at Executive Magazine)

GARETH SMYTH has reported from around the Middle East for almost two decades and was formerly the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran

Executive Magazine - Nuclear negotiations from fusion to fission
Executive Magazine - Nuclear negotiations from fusion to fission
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In the fall of 2004 I went twice to the Supreme Council for National Security in Tehran for long interviews with Hossein Mousavian, a senior negotiator in talks with Britain, France and Germany over Iran’s nuclear program. The transcripts make sharp reading seven years later, for two reasons. Firstly, leading Iranian diplomats or security officials no longer seem to give such access.

Secondly, the interviews recall a diplomatic process during which Iran suspended uranium enrichment as a “goodwill gesture” to help talks with Western powers. The Iranian negotiators were led by Hassan Rowhani, a pragmatic if dour cleric who, as a colleague told me, “understands we’ve suffered too long from ideologies, and that Iran should instead pursue its national interest.”

A whiff of compromise hung in the air. A European diplomat said the Mousavian interviews offered “real insight into the mind of the Iranian negotiators” and another insisted Europe would at some stage relax its demand for Iran to cease enrichment for good.

One point Mousavian made to me was that the Iranians felt domestic pressure from critics of the talks. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan newspaper, argued that Iran should leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Ali Larijani, now parliamentary speaker, quipped Iran would be swapping “candy for a pearl” if it took economic aid in return for ending enrichment.

Some Europeans scoffed at the idea the Iranian negotiators were under pressure. One diplomat, who happened to be close to Washington, said this was a tactic cooked up by the Iranian team.

And yet, there were indications, going back to the 2003 offer of a “grand bargain”, that Iran’s leaders were ready for a deal in which they would accept, for a set period, limits on enrichment as well as intrusive inspections by the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Such a compromise would give, Iran suggested, the “objective guarantees” the Europeans wanted of Iran’s peaceful intentions while recognizing its right to enrich as an NPT signatory.

Times have changed. Following his 2005 presidential election win, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised the nuclear program from state policy into a popular campaign.

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Enrichment was resumed and expanded, and sanctions have been strengthened. Barack Obama won the United States 2008 election promising “engagement” but, restrained by the US right and Israel, this has amounted to a few cursory meetings.

The latest IAEA report, out in September, finds Iran now has 4,534 kilograms of uranium enriched to around 5 percent (low-enriched uranium, or LEU) and 70.8 kg enriched to 20 percent.

That is far more than Iran had in 2004. It is also more than it had last year when it agreed with Turkey and Brazil to export the bulk of its LEU in return for 20 percent-enriched uranium, which is used for medical treatment, especially of cancer patients. Yet the US torpedoed the Turkey-Brazil deal, and Iran began enriching to 20 percent itself.

And so the show moves on. In August, Fereydun Abbasi-Davani, head of the Atomic Energy Organization, said Iran would no longer consider a fuel swap.

Iran is edging nearer to being able to enrich to 95 percent for a bomb, if it should choose to do so. Yet, the issue is political and not technical: any country that can enrich uranium can make a weapon. As Mousavian said in 2004, “Iran already has the capability… we have the minds.”

This summer Mousavian, now at Princeton University, published a wide-ranging piece, ‘Rules for Successful Engagement with Iran’, examining the state of diplomacy on the New Atlanticist blog. He suggested the Obama administration had continued the Bush policy of “ratcheting up pressure through new sanctions, hinting at a readiness to take military action and supporting covert sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program.” Threats and sanctions, he wrote, limited Iranian officials’ room for maneuver, just as Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric had “increased tremendously the political cost to American politicians of being seen as soft on Iran”.

Mousavian conceded engagement was “risky” for both camps and required “bravery and wisdom in Washington and Tehran”. But, the alternative he wrote was “the same escalation of the confrontation”. He seemed far from optimistic.


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