Iran nuclear talks succeed just by continuing

Daniel Levy writes: The economic and political news out of Europe may be grim, but on the diplomatic front Europe is leading what may be the most consequential negotiations of 2012 – the so-called E3+3 talks with Iran. Those talks are being managed by the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and shepherded by the European External Action Service’s trouble-shooter, Helga Schmid.

Accounts from all sides suggest that Ashton and Schmid are making rather a good fist of it – the Iranians are still at the table (with a third round of talks scheduled for Moscow in mid-June) – and that the countries participating have remained sufficiently united to avoid descending into mutual recriminations. No easy task given how high the stakes are, the history of failed talks, the tensions within participants and the curveballs that Israel, the US Congress and Iran itself have a habit of throwing.

That’s all good and dandy, but the Europeans may soon have to make a decisive call on substance rather than management. What does Europe want out of these talks? At the Pollyanna-ish end of the spectrum would be a definitive, implementable and sustainable deal laying to rest nuclear suspicions towards Iran and opening a door to western-Iranian co-operation across a range of issues (think Afghanistan, Horn of Africa security, and possibly Syria and Iraq; but even Pollyanna might balk at co-operation on Israel/Palestine or democracy promotion). While the contours for such a deal exist (variations on Iran’s right to enrich being recognised, being limited and being verified), the political realities in 2012 – notably in the US and Iran – decisively undermine this prospect.

The opposite end of that scale would see talks as intended to expose Iranian malfeasance, helping to maintain international commonality of purpose as sanctions are ratcheted up further. If the ultimate goal is regime change induced by economic strangulation or Iranian capitulation (as opposed to negotiated compromise), or even to provoke Iran as a justification for military intervention, then this makes sense. Yet it is hard to view this as being the desired European outcome.

Which brings us to what is desirable and achievable in 2012. The best, realistic prognosis for these talks is that they deliver a partial enrichment freeze in return for partial sanctions relief. Short of that, the goal is more talks – improving mutual understanding for when there is greater political room for compromise – in Iran, the US or both. Crucially, military action is averted. [Continue reading…]

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