Developments between Iran and the P5+1 over the course of October--with the US playing a key role in devising the recent nuclear fuel proposal--cannot be described as anything but "deja vu all over again". We've been there too many times over the past seven years. We've seen Iran agree, then disagree, then agree a little bit, then reject again, then say more time is needed to consider, then finally present a counter-proposal, then say it wants cooperation, then say it will never give up on its rights, and so on and so forth.
Throughout the years since 2002, Iran has at times gone so far as to actually cooperate for a while on the aspects of its program where it felt it could afford some flexibility--this happened with the EU-3 and also with the IAEA--but the Iranians never took cooperation so far that it diverted them from their overall goal in the nuclear realm. And as much as the domestic situation in Iran has changed since the June elections this year, the strategy for dealing with the international community on the nuclear issue has not.
So what can be learned from Iran's behavior? The challenge for an international community that is determined to negotiate with Iran is to distill from these dynamics a few hard constants regarding Iran's strategy that will enable it to deal with Iran more effectively.
The most basic insight is that Iran is progressing toward military nuclear capability for the influence it will gain thereby, and does not want to pay a very high price due to international reaction. This is the simple key to understand its maneuverings.
Accepting that Iran is determined to achieve either a military capability or the stage where it is some six months from doing so, as is by now clear from IAEA documents themselves, means that there is no longer any point in wasting diplomatic time by devising "clever" tests of Iran's intentions. It is no longer warranted to say that Iran needs to prove once and for all to the international community that its intentions are indeed peaceful, as it claims. Iran has always found a way to wriggle out of these tests. But more importantly, the answer is by now known: Iran's intentions are not peaceful, and this must be adopted as the working assumption when facing it in negotiations.
On this basis, the international community must understand Iran's strategy for warding off international pressure. Iran knows that it has an advantage over the international community because not all states confronting it are interested to the same degree in stopping it. Many wish to maintain economic and other ties with Iran; these give Iran a diplomatic edge and the ability to play the divide-and-rule game. This is especially true with regard to the US/Europe-Russia/China divide.
Therefore, even though US President Barack Obama wants to present a multilateral front, the US is weakened by working within the broad P5+1 framework and would do better to negotiate with Iran bilaterally. Take Russia for example. While Obama has strived to get Russia "on board", it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia actually gains from the ongoing crisis and has no real interest in joining the US, even when offered concessions such as on missile defense in Europe.
The US must also understand the meaning of Iran's bouts of cooperation. These are unfortunately not an indication that Iran wants to change its ways or build confidence. Rather, for Iran cooperation has been a necessary "evil" to ward off the harshest measures as well as gain time to advance its program. Iran falls back on cooperation when it has no other choice, and especially when some aspect of its secret military nuclear activities is blatantly exposed or its strategy of divide-and-rule looks like it might run into problems, as at those junctures when international determination seems to get stronger.
All this is not to say that Iran's positions are completely static or unchangeable. In fact, Iran probably would like ultimately to carve out a deal with the international community that recognizes its central regional role. But it knows that when armed with a military nuclear capability it will be much better positioned to achieve that goal; it will get a better deal. So Iran's rational interest is to put off any real negotiation with the international community until it has reached military (or assumed military) capability.
In contrast, the goal of the international community is to conduct effective negotiations before Iran reaches that point. Concrete pressure on Iran plays an important role: it is necessary to impress upon Iran that a harsher approach toward it is very real and that it therefore has every interest in negotiating seriously with the US right now. Once the dynamic becomes a US-Iranian one, the US would be well advised to put additional regional issues on the table and go for a broader deal with Iran.
From Israel's vantage point, more effective negotiations are the best option for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. If the US enters such negotiations, Israel's challenge will be to ensure that its own regional interests are secured.- Published 5/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org