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What Went Right at Almaty

Iran and the P5+1 powers are finally negotiating instead of just talking.

Foreign Policy In Focus

After eight months of diplomatic hiatus, Iran and the so-called “P5+1” powers—including the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—were finally able to return to the negotiating table. And, to the surprise of many observers, they managed to pull off a potential breakthrough in the decade-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

Importantly, the talks secured the basic agreement of both sides to continue negotiations on a more regular and institutionalized basis, portending the commencement of an actual diplomatic process to resolve the impasse—as opposed to military intervention and ever-tightening sanctions. Under the agreement, lower-level representatives from the two sides will meet in Istanbul in mid-March to iron out the technical details of a subsequent high-level meeting on April 5 and 6 for Almaty II. With Washington and Tel Aviv refusing to rule out a military “solution,” this means that the talks were at least able to dampen earlier fears of a permanent diplomatic hibernation.

Atmospherics and symbolism were also in play. The host of the nuclear talks, Kazakhstan, is one of few countries to have voluntarily relinquished nuclear weapons. Last year, the country’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, encouraged Tehran to come clean on its nuclear program in an op-ed for the New York Times, presenting his country as a model to follow. “With independence, we became the world’s fourth-largest nuclear power. One of our first acts as a sovereign nation was voluntarily to give up these weapons,” the Kazakh president proudly shared. “Since then, we have worked tirelessly to encourage other countries to follow our lead and build a world in which the threat of nuclear weapons belongs to history.” The leader of an ambitious central Asian nation that has tirelessly sought the global spotlight, Nazarbayev spared no effort to encourage both Tehran and the West to try something new: to start bargaining instead of blackmailing. 

Getting Serious

Arguably, the previous rounds of negotiations—notably the Istanbul II, Baghdad, and Moscow nuclear talks in 2012—were more “talks” than “negotiations.” Both sides were simply sizing each other up, with each side believing it held the upper hand. The West, upbeat about what it presumed to be Iran’s growing anxieties over the impacts of sanctions, prevaricated on even a basic recognition of Iran’s peaceful enrichment rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Tehran, meanwhile, pushed the boundaries of its enrichment program to improve its bargaining position, believing an upgraded sanctions-busting strategy could prevent major economic disruptions from new sanctions. 

However, both sides apparently realized that in the absence of a major reconfiguration of their respective negotiating positions, the nuclear talks were headed for collapse—dramatically raising the prospects of war.

Western leaders have gradually come to appreciate that no matter how much they sanction Iran, the regime will always have enough oil income, resources, and technical know-how to continue its nuclear progress. After all, Tehran astutelyused a combination of barter deals, stealthy oil transport, alternative financial channels, sovereign insurance schemes, and discounted energy deals to woo major Asian buyers. Nonetheless, despite some noticeable recovery in Iran’s oil exports in recent months, the Iranian economy has taken a massive hit from sanctions: its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has contracted between 4 and 8 percent, oil exports have fallen by half, oil production has reached its lowest levels in three decades, its currency has lost about 75 percent of its value, and people have begun to talk about an impending medical (and even food) crisis in Iran. Prior to Almaty, both sides finally seemed to realize that the only way forward was to renew negotiations.

This trend was bolstered by the results of the U.S. presidential election. Immediately after securing his re-election, President Barack Obama found himself in a particularly strong position to re-launch his nuclear diplomacy. Aside from hinting at potential direct bilateral talks with Iran, the Obama administration also pushed for an encouraging bureaucratic re-shuffle in favor of engagement with Iran. By selecting Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel—two figures known for their relatively dovish stances towards Iran—as his secretaries of state and defense, Obama sent a clear signal to the Iranians that he meant real business. In response, major political players in Tehran—ranging from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and the all-powerful Iranian Intelligence Ministry—began to express their hopes for a negotiated solution.

Nonetheless, heading into Almaty talks, both sides—aware of the domestic politics of the multilateral negotiations—tried to project a relatively tough position. The West hinted at minimal sanctions’ relief and a quasi-recognition of Iran’s enrichment rights at 3-5 percent purity levels in exchange for Iran accepting the West’s long-standing “stop-shut-ship” demand. This would entail an immediate halt to 20-percent enrichment, shutting down the heavily fortified Fordo enrichment plant, shipping Iran’s stockpile of medium-enriched uranium out of the country, and a new comprehensive inspections regime (the so-called Additional Protocol, covering non-nuclear facilities such as the Parchin military complex). Predictably, Iran dismissed this supposedly “revised” position, arguing that it did not meet Iran’s two basic demands: an unequivocal recognition of Iran’s peaceful enrichment rights and the reversal of all sanctions.

In Tehran, amid an intense political atmosphere ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in June, political figures struck a defiant tone, urging Iranian negotiators to stand their ground and defend Iran’s sovereign enrichment rights. And to reiterate the “irreversibility” of its enrichment drive, top officials announced  the installation of 180 advanced IR-2m centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility, new uranium mines, and proposed sites for future nuclear facilities.

However, in a telling sign of Iran’s willingness to explore a mutually acceptable compromise, it actually slowed down its mid-level uranium enrichment and fed 28 kilograms of its 20-percent enriched uranium into conversation facilities for fuel production, according to the latest IAEA report. This meant that Iran (again) voluntarily stepped back from the critical threshold of a 240-250-kg stockpile necessary to build a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also made it very clear that the only way for the United States to negotiate with Iran was to stop “point[ing] the gun at Iran and say either negotiations or we pull the trigger.” To make it clear that Tehran was insisting on substantive bargaining this time, the supreme leader ruled out “negotiation for the sake of negotiation,” which, according to him, only allows the West to make a show of saying it went to the table.

Encouragingly, the West did manage to modify and upgrade its offer to Iran in Almaty, prompting Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to describe the talks as a “turning point,” while Foreign Minister Salehi said he was “very confident” that an agreement could be reached. American diplomats, most notably the newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry, described the talks as useful and potentially the beginning of a serious engagement on the nuclear issue.

The Outline of a Deal

So, what went right? Well, according to the New York Timesthe world powers “dropped their demand that Iran shut down its enrichment plant at Fordo” and conceded “that Iran could keep a small amount of 20 percent enriched uranium for use in a reactor to produce medical isotopes.” The West also reportedly offered some sanctions relief, permitting the resumption of the precious metals trade and allowing some petroleum trade and international banking between Iran and its energy customers. The West offered these concessions in exchange for stringent restrictions on Iran’s enrichment activities above 3-5 percent and the suspension of enrichment at Fordo, followed by more intrusive inspections to ensure that Iran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium is not diverted into a nuclear warhead.

In effect, the West has not only recognized Iran’s basic enrichment rights. It has also provided Tehran some room to resume medium-level enrichment for medical purposes. Perhaps most importantly, the West allowed Iranian leaders to save face by not demanding the outright closure of the Fordo facility.

As Michael Mann, the spokesperson for EU chief negotiator Catherine Ashton, put it, “The onus is very much on the Iranians” now. It is clear that the Iranians are pleased with this apparent shift in the West’s nuclear position. Once again, however, Iran’s domestic politics are a crucial variable. A major breakthrough is highly unlikely in the absence of a unifying Iranian presidential candidate, one who could rally the support of all important figures and factions within the country to make a lasting deal with the West. But it’s easier to imagine now than after any other previous round of talks.

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