Iran nuke talks: Don’t blow it

John Tirman writes: The news from Baghdad is good. The nuclear talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries paused somewhat amicably, with signs of progress and a schedule to meet in a month in Moscow. The question is, as always, how many ways can this progress be derailed?

Details of what transpired in Baghdad will leak out over the coming days, but chief negotiator Catherine Ashton’s official statement at the end of talks Thursday made it clear that both sides regard the negotiations as promising and will return to the bargaining table very quickly.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners (China, Russia, U.K., France, and Germany) seek to rein in Iran’s enrichment program, by which uranium is brought closer to weapons grade. Iran’s position is to link any concessions on enrichment to the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, which have become very damaging to Iran’s economy. There are many more details, of course, but that is the essence of any deal.

Critics of the talks, which include Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, insist that Iran is only delaying to build a nuclear weapon, but that old dog won’t hunt. Negotiations on complex technical issues, where suspicion and national pride are in play, take some time. There are reasonable proposals on the table, and an agreement could be within reach.

The question is, who will try to be the spoiler? Israel is the top candidate for that role. It uses the Iran issue for domestic politics and to manipulate the United States. It distracts from their 45-year occupation of Palestine and their unwillingness to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Fortunately, a number of high-level Israelis have decried Netanyahu’s Iran gambit. And Israel does not have the military prowess to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program by its oft-repeated threat to bomb.

Often forgotten in the hoopla about Iran’s program is that U.S. intelligence agencies have declared twice, in 2007 under President Bush and again 12 weeks ago, that Iran does not have a nuclear-weapons program. Israel, by contrast, is said to have as many as 200 nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan’s move to nuclear-weapons status in the 1990s was punished with a slap on the wrist compared with Iran’s non-program.

Even more vexing is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligates all nuclear powers to move toward disarmament, a legal obligation that the five nuclear powers represented in the Iran negotiations (all but Germany) have quite obviously ignored. (There is an even more taboo topic, however — which is what would happen if Iran did get a bomb or two or three, which is almost certainly not much at all; they would be completely deterred by the U.S. and Israel from ever using them. But as my friend Hugh Gusterson has argued, we are in the grip of “nuclear orientalism,” imputing to Iranians a savagery and irrationality that is baseless but convenient.) [Continue reading…]

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