Opinion: Iran v. West – breaking the deadlock

George Bernard Shaw used to say that political necessities sometime turn out to be political mistakes. As things stand in ongoing negotiations between the West and Iran, this seems to be the parallel for what is going to happen in yet another round of talks later this month in Russia. Let us consider the current balance of actions.

Iranian Religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his recent appearance publically accused West of fabricating information about Iran’s nuclear progress to cover up its own problems. In the same speech he warned that Israeli military action against his country will me bet with “thunderous blow”. It is worth reminding that this is the same person who, under his religious jurisdiction, has forbidden the development of the nuclear weapons in Iran some time ago.

Fereidoun Abbasi, Iranian nuclear chief stated recently that at least two new nuclear plants will be built soon and that there is no reason why Iran should stop its 20% uranium enrichment. More importantly, Iranian Defense Minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, has recently announced that the new space facility is under construction and will be ready soon. While we can’t deny Iranian space ambitions, such installation can also be successfully used for military purposes, i.e. to carry intercontinental missiles and warheads.

Wednesday (6th June), Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency – Ali Asghar Soltanieh, accused the Agency for spying and stated that “Iran will resist to the end […] and never suspend its enrichment activities”, and denied the previous statement from the IAEA that wider access has been granted to its officers after talks on the 22nd May.

IAEA chief, Yukiya Amano, will meet with Iranian representatives again on Friday to discuss unrestricted access to Parchin military site (about 20 miles South of Teheran). Surprisingly, no consideration is given the other five major nuclear sites (Arak, Bushehr, Esfahan, Fordo and Nantz), which Iran will try to use as a leverage before the P5+1 talks resume in Moscow on June 18-19. In the meantime, Russian president Vladimir Putin is set to meet Ahmadinejad in Beijing today (Thursday, 7th June) for ‘preliminary talks’ before the summit begins in Moscow later this month.

Now, we might argue whether Iran is a rational actor or not and considering historical parallels of current negotiations, the latter would probably be the more appropriate analysis. Accepting the unacceptable is also not a viable solution. As much as everyone would like to see the diplomatic resolution of this conflict, Iran does not make this easy. Nor did it show any signs of progress during earlier talks in Baghdad and Istanbul. On the other side, Western negotiation tactics does not carry much finesse with it either. Obama’s ‘containment is not an option’ strategy and starting the talks by demanding the immediate closing of nuclear facilities and approval for ad-hoc IAEA inspections on the ground without any flexibility in approach didn’t prove very productive. Most importantly, however, to reach an agreement in international negotiations, each side has to be assured that the other is serious about negotiating a settlement. In current perspective, neither side holds that assurance.

Unfortunately, between the carrot and the stick, the West seems to be more familiar with the stick. We can, quite rightly, argue that increased sanctions brought Iran back to the negotiating table, but there isn’t much consideration given to how much sanctions are affecting every-day Iranians and most of the civil society in the country. And worse is yet to come after 1st July when EU oil embargo starts. If that doesn’t tighten the belt quite enough, there have been ideas of imposing an airline embargo, other transport limitations or formal financial sector limitations (including limits of transferring funds from Iranian SWIFT codes). As much as Iran could possibly handle most of the sanctions as a regime, the impact this can have on wider population can be disastrous, as we have seen in many cases in the past.

History shows us that wishful thinking has no place in the matters of political urgency and international conflict. Perhaps the dynamic of negotiations with Iran should change from being Western-led and, in the eyes of the regime, unfair, suppressive and one-sided. Perhaps Catherine Ashton could strike a better deal in engaging local actors that would certainly not benefit from Iranian possession of nukes – actors like Pakistan, India or more productive involvement of Turkey to negotiate a right nuclear balance for the sake of local stability of power? Using the Brazilian example and their dealings with the nuclear potential would also be a helpful negotiation strategy. Thinking outside the box, more productive cooperation with Mujahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK) could result in a lot of useful information needed by the negotiating table. MEK has been perceived as the Iranian ‘government in exile’, and only in 2009 removed from the US and EU list of organisations it designates as terrorist. Working to overthrow the Islamic republic, MEK members have been supplying invaluable intelligence to US and UK for years not only about Iran’s development of the nuclear weapons but also about its secret influence in Iraq.

This is not to argue that current negotiations are not a matter of political necessity. They are. This is to argue that by opening approach and targeting the issue from many fronts using different political actors and complementary objectives might just bring the right amount of trust to secure the initial settlement. Just as Benjamin Franklin, I am neither bitter nor cynical but I do wish there was less immaturity and more openness in political thinking.

* Peter Lesniak is an independent columnist concentrating on Foreign Affairs and Middle East. His pieces were published in many portals and publications including e-IR, ViaPolitica, The House Magazine and LibDem Voice. He is a recent LSE graduate (MSc in Conflict Studies), currently Research Assistant in the House of Lords, and Director of Communications at Bite the Ballot Ltd.

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  • The real problem is that the lack of trust, particularly on the Iranian side, more or less rules out any agreement being reached other than by some fairly serious pressure.
    As for the regional picture, it suits the regional powers to have the P5+1 (especially the USA and the Europeans) play bad cop. Difficult to see how India and Pakistan can be credible negotiators with Iran on nuclear disarmament.

  • Peter,

    I would agree with your basic premise of the need for ‘thinking outside the box’ and involving regional powers, but would suggest that the focus of these activities should be along the lines of this paper: A Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East.

    A New York Times article on a survey last November reported as follows:

    “…less than half of Israelis support a strike on Iran. According to our November poll, carried out in cooperation with the Dahaf Institute in Israel, only 43 percent of Israeli Jews support a military strike on Iran — even though 90 percent of them think that Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons.

    Most important, when asked whether it would be better for both Israel and Iran to have the bomb, or for neither to have it, 65 percent of Israeli Jews said neither. And a remarkable 64 percent favored the idea of a nuclear-free zone, even when it was explained that this would mean Israel giving up its nuclear weapons.

    The Israeli public also seems willing to move away from a secretive nuclear policy toward greater openness about Israel’s nuclear facilities. Sixty percent of respondents favored “a system of full international inspections” of all nuclear facilities, including Israel’s and Iran’s, as a step toward regional disarmament.

    If Israel’s nuclear program were to become part of the equation, it would be a game-changer. Iran has until now effectively accused the West of employing a double standard because it does not demand Israeli disarmament, earning it many fans across the Arab world.

    And a nuclear-free zone may be hard for Iran to refuse. Iranian diplomats have said they would be open to an intrusive role for the United Nations if it accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium for energy production — not to the higher levels necessary for weapons. And a 2007 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that the Iranian people would favor such a deal.

    We cannot take what Iranian officials say at face value, but an international push for a nuclear-free Middle East would publicly test them. And most Arab leaders would rather not start down the nuclear path — a real risk if Iran gets the bomb — and have therefore welcomed the proposal of a nuclear-free zone.

    Some Israeli officials may also take the idea seriously. As Avner Cohen’s recent book “The Worst-Kept Secret” shows, Israel’s policy of “opacity” — not acknowledging having nuclear weapons while letting everyone know it does — has existed since 1969, but is now becoming outdated. Indeed, no one outside Israel today sees any ambiguity about the fact that Israel possesses a large nuclear arsenal.

    Although Israeli leaders have in the past expressed openness to the idea of a nuclear-free zone, they have always insisted that there must first be peace between Israel and its neighbors.

    But the stalemate with Iran could actually delay or prevent peace in the region. As the former Israeli spy chief, Meir Dagan, argued earlier this month, Israel’s current stance might actually accelerate Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and encourage Arab states to follow suit. Moreover, talk of an “existential threat” projects Israel as weak, hurts its morale, and reduces its foreign policy options. This helps explain why three leading Israeli security experts — the Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, a former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, and a former military chief of staff, Dan Halutz — all recently declared that a nuclear Iran would not pose an existential threat to Israel.

    While full elimination of nuclear weapons is improbable without peace, starting the inevitably long and arduous process of negotiations toward that end is vital.

    Given that Israelis overwhelmingly believe that Iran is on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons and several security experts have begun to question current policy, there is now an opportunity for a genuine debate on the real choices: relying on cold-war-style “mutual assured destruction” once Iran develops nuclear weapons or pursuing a path toward a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, with a chance that Iran — and Arabs — will never develop the bomb at all.

    There should be no illusions that successfully negotiating a path toward regional nuclear disarmament will be easy. But the mere conversation could transform a debate that at present is stuck between two undesirable options: an Iranian bomb or war.”

  • Rebecca Hanson 7th Jun '12 - 11:04pm

    I think it’s essential we do vastly more listening.
    Listening to this is a good start:
    Ahmadinejad was making important and reasonable points but everyone was walking out. Why?
    He says we shouldn’t have chuck Bin Laden in the sea – that he was clearly guilty of orchestrating the crime but that h should have been put on trial so important questions essential for quashing conspiracy theories could have been answered and it’s report as him denying Bin Laden did it.
    He says Israel should not be settling beyond its borders and it’s reported as him saying Israel should be destroyed.
    He talks about the problems the West is creating for him in his own country and his points are fair and we are not listening. It’s disgraceful.

  • @Joe Bourke

    That is a very interesting response and some very thoughtful suggestions there.

  • Paul Reynolds 8th Jun '12 - 12:42pm

    Thanks Peter for an excellent article. I agree that there is a lack of trust between the Iranian government and both the 5+1 negotiators and the IAEA leadership. I have some brief points…

    1. You state ‘…worse is yet to come after 1st July when EU oil embargo starts’. There are two types of sanctions – the UN sanctions focused on restrictions on goods that may be used in nuclear weaponisation, and the ‘unilateral’ US-led sanctions, which the EU have agreed to adopt too, under pressure from the US, UK and Israel. The new US/EU sanctions apply from July 1st, and extend to the petrochemical sector, and (getting close to an illegal blockade) payments to Iran’s Central Bank.

    2. Regarding the MEK, you say ‘…MEK has been perceived as the Iranian ‘government in exile’, and only in 2009 removed from the US and EU list of organisations it designates as terrorist’. The MEK is still designated as a terrorist organisation in the USA, and in the US there have been preparations to change this status. There are various claims about the MEK, including that they have been trained and financed in Iran by Israeli agents posing as CIA officials, and that they have been trained in combat and terror operations in Arizona. However, regardless of the truth of these allegations, as a small guerrilla organisation they cannot be regarded by any means as a ‘government in exile’.

    3. The IAEA is not seeking to stop Iran from enriching uranium to 20%. Their concern is enrichment to higher levels to the extent that they can be used for nuclear weaponisation. Under IAEA protocols, there is no prohibition on 20% enrichment and even senior US military officials have accepted that enrichment to such levels has civilian applications, and that Iran has the ‘right’ to do so. The 5+1 negotiators however seek a halt to the 20% enrichment as part of their list of demands outside of IAEA obligations, based on the concept that it takes Iran further towards potential weaponisation capacity. (Although the US Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence have both conceded that Iran is not making a nuclear bomb, and have not decided to make one in the future).

    4. IAEA inspectors have visited Parchin many times. It is not designated as a ‘nuclear site’, and has been the subject of much propaganda and misinformation. It is the site of Iran’s long range missile development, which you allude to. An oft made allegation is that the USA and Israel have sexed up the nuclear weaponisation issue as a pretext to attack Iran, with the actual main target being the non-nuclear long range missile base at Parchin. There is some evidence to support this allegation (from Israel) but it tends to get drowned out by the general warmongering.

    5. You are right to point to evidence that Iran wants to do a deal, and get ‘the West’ off its back. However, they are poor negotiators and have problems speaking with one voice. President Ahmedi Nejad is brutal with his people but weak and ineffectual inside the regime – and prone to confuse his internal propaganda aims with his international negotiating aims. Technically he is not responsible for the nuclear industry or the missile programme. The nuclear weaponisation allegations, however, are strengthening his position in Iran.

  • Peter Lesniak 12th Jun '12 - 10:15am

    @ Joe Bourke – Many thanks for this Joe, valuable points that should be definitely taken into consideration. My worry is that the nuclear-free zone concept is almost impossible to accept by man states that are not NPT-signed or ratified.

    @Paul Reynolds – Paul, excellent points, thank you for pointing out. I realised the MEK shortly after submitting, and personally don’t agree with the ‘government in exile’ status but there are a lot of organisations, pressure groups and even academics that refer to them as such. I would much rather see the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) as the more appropriate body in those terms.

    Many thanks again for detailed commentary!

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