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CIAO Focus, October 2012: Iran's Nuclear Standoff with Israel and the West

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West have had their share of dashed expectations, but even by this peculiar standard, the recent diplomatic roller coaster stands out. Brimming with hope in Istanbul, negotiators crashed to earth in Baghdad, a few weeks later. That was not unexpected, given inflated hopes, mismatched expectations and – most hurtful – conviction on both sides that they had the upper hand. But if negotiations collapse now, it is hard to know what comes next. Washington and Brussels seem to count on sanctions taking their toll and forcing Iran to compromise. Tehran appears to bank on a re-elected President Obama displaying more flexibility and an economically incapacitated Europe balking at sanctions that could boomerang. Neither is likely; instead, with prospects for a deal fading, Israeli pressure for a military option may intensify. Rather than more brinkmanship, Iran and the P5+1 (UN Security Council permanent members and Germany) should agree on intensive, continuous, technical level negotiations to achieve a limited agreement on Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment.

The optimism that greeted the Istanbul talks largely was illusory. Success was measured against a remarkably negative starting point – the absence of talks for the preceding fifteen months and a series of escalatory steps by all sides in the interim. The discussions themselves were largely devoid of polemics, but they also were largely devoid of substance. All were on their best behaviour because, tactically, all shared a common goal: to gain time and avoid a crisis that could lead to an Israeli military strike, risk further instability in the region, send oil prices soaring and thus complicate both Europe’s recovery and Obama’s reelection.

The problem is that the West and Iran interpreted the positive atmosphere differently. Officials from Europe and the U.S. were persuaded that Tehran’s agreement to come to the table and its non-belligerency once there stemmed principally from two realities: the devastating impact of sanctions that already have been imposed on the Iranian economy and the even more devastating impact of those that are soon to come on the one hand; and Israeli military threats on the other. The Islamic Republic also felt that it was in the driver’s seat, having strengthened its position over the preceding year by increasing its stockpile of low enriched uranium, enriching at higher levels and completing its work on the underground nuclear facility at Fordow.
With both feeling relatively strong, neither was in a mood to give in.

--International Crisis Group


From the CIAO Database:

Stall Speed: Assessing Delay of the Iranian Nuclear Program via Israeli Military Strike

Iran: a revolutionary republic in transition

The P5 +1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship

Attacking Iran: Lessons from the Iran-Iraq War

Iranian nuclear weapons: a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Why Iran Wants the Bomb and what it means for US Policy


Outside Sources: *

IAEA & Iran (International Atomic Energy Agency)

Iran's key nuclear sites

Iran Sanctions (U.S. Department of State)

Crisis Guide: Iran (Council on Foreign Relations)

* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.