One day before the latest in a long line of deadlines in the negotiations over an Iranian nuclear deal, what passed for positive news was that while one of the primary negotiators announced he was leaving, he also said he was willing to return Tuesday, deadline day.
The announced departure of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly led to rumors that others also might leave, yet would be prepared to quickly return to this city along Lake Geneva, beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps.
Call it brinksmanship, or busy schedules, or playing out a hand, it’s also on some level an acknowledgment of reality. Were Lavrov not to return, it would hardly be the first time a participant had left negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions with nothing to show.
On Monday, the Chinese Xinhua news agency quoted an official saying the mood in Lausanne on Monday had gone from “optimism to gloom.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there was “some progress and some setbacks.”
That’s the history of negotiations between what is called the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – plus Germany) and Iran.
The talks first began back in June 2006, when the P5+1 proposed a “framework for an agreement.” While there have been several different stages in negotiations since, the basic issues have remained unsolved, though they have gotten more complicated.
And if the 24 hours between the end of Monday and Tuesday are a total success, the negotiations will produce an agreed-upon “framework for an agreement.” Sound familiar?
Back in the beginning, even before 2006, Iran was insisting on its national right to a nuclear power program. Today, it has one, and it’s insisting on keeping and improving it.
The problem is that the P5+1 simply never believed Iran’s nuclear intentions were peaceful. They believed Iran wanted nuclear technology to make nuclear weapons. A nuclear armed Iran is seen as a threat to the Middle East, in particular Israel, and beyond that, as a destabilizing force to global security.
Nuclear power generation, as well as nuclear medical needs, requires uranium enrichment, which is done in centrifuges. Nuclear bombs also require enriched uranium, though at a much higher level, which is also done in centrifuges (a nuclear expert who asked not be named because of the delicacy of negotiations explained the difference this way: It “requires a change in plumbing . . . well, it’s more complicated, but in the most simplistic terms, that’s it”).
In even more simplistic terms, the problems in these negotiations have always been something far more basic than the technology: Nobody really trusts the other side, at all.
Recently, the Fars News Agency reported that Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that Iran’s negotiators “should be careful with the enemies’ deceptive and skillful tactics.”
Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi on Monday said there was not yet even a draft document to discuss.
“We are negotiating on two issues,” he told Fars, “confidence-building about Iran’s nuclear program, which is demanded by the other side, and respect for Iran’s nuclear rights and removal of sanctions, which is demanded by us.”
On Monday, Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on Middle Eastern security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, published a paper noting “every aspect of the negotiations has so far left unresolved questions about the nature of Iran’s nuclear programs.”
“Détente may come at some point in the future,” he wrote, “but any nuclear agreement that does finally emerge will be the result of an adversarial relationship, and one that is unlikely to have any predictable ending after an agreement is signed.”
It’s hardly a new thing. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, said in an interview in 2009: “I have said for the past six years that the policy of building trust between the West (and the United States in particular) and Iran has failed completely. We haven’t moved one iota.”
That distrust also was evident among American Republicans who on Monday were touring Israel and the Middle East. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he shared the prime minister’s concerns about Iran becoming a nuclear-armed nation and insisted that Congress approve any agreement that might be forthcoming.
In the years since the talks began – they go back to 2003 – Iran has increased its number of functioning centrifuges, including building a secret, second facility. The Iranians did admit building the plant to the IAEA, but the U.S. claimed the admission came only when it was clear the operation had been uncovered.
There have been advances on the regulatory side as well. IAEA inspectors have been given access to Iranian facilities, though early in March when reporting on their inspections in Iran, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano noted that they weren’t able “to provide credible assurances of the absence of undeclared nuclear material.”
Meaning that even with inspections, the agency can’t declare all nuclear material in Iran is being used for peaceful purposes – though Amano didn’t present any evidence indicating that it was not.
German news outlets report that getting an agreement means billions in new business for German companies. The hope is that their current $2.5 billion in trade with Iran in 2014 could increase to between $5.5 billion and $13 billion.
Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association think tank and a former U.S. intelligence official, noted that the years have produced some positives. The United States, Russia and China are all more actively involved in negotiations today than they were a decade ago. And all parties have adhered to a November 2013 agreement that, among other things, halted Iran’s expansion of its program and saw the destruction of its stores of highly enriched uranium.
“While trust remains a serious issue on both sides, the adherence of all parties to the terms of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action and to its extension has had a huge impact on building the basis for trust,” he wrote in an email answer.
While the talks seem to have resulted in little, time has not stood still for either side, he said.
“The last 11 years have featured the creation of a large and relatively well-functioning nuclear infrastructure in Iran,” he said, “and a far-ranging and relatively effective sanctions effort against Iran, which has conferred heavy costs on Iran’s political and economic standing.”
That is reason, he said, to get a deal done.