The long-awaited P5+1 talks with Iran took place today in Baghdad, with disappointing results. While the U.S. and its allies called for Iran to stop enriching uranium at 20 percent levels in exchange for delivery of the medical isotopes Iran is creating with the 20 percent enriched uranium and, oddly enough, some spare parts for civilian airliners. Iran rejected this because its first priority going into further negotiations is to avoid the harsh sanctions, which have already hurt their economy and badly slowed their oil exports. Iran offered to give greater access to UN inspectors if at least some of the sanctions could be eased. The West said no.
So, no “deal” was reached, but the nations are scheduled to meet again for further talks in Moscow on June 18.
Today I attended an event in DC hosted by the National Iranian American Council, featuring the following speakers: PJ Crowley, Aaron David Miller, Bijan Khajehpour, George Perkovich, moderated by Trita Parsi of NIAC and frequent contributor to this blog (partial bois here). I was happy to hear that there was complete agreement on a few important points. First of all, Miller said that, given the fact that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, “a unilateral attack [on Iran] would be totally discretionary. It would be a war of choice,” not of necessity. Perkovich interrupted him for emphasis on what an unprovoked military strike actually is, saying “it would be illegal.” Miller finished up his point by saying that he does not expect any Israeli or U.S. attack “this year.”
PJ Crowley, former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Policy under Obama and not exactly known for his dovish views, said a preemptive strike on Iran “makes an Iranian nuclear weapon inevitable.” I made this argument in a recent piece I wrote for the magazine published by Young Americans for Liberty. The hawks have no leg to stand on in arguing for war on Iran because it would embolden, not subdue, Iran.
Adding on to that point, Bijan Khajehpour, who is an Iranian expat who was actually imprisoned by the Iranian regime during the unrest there in 2009, emphasized that the Iranian leadership is “rational and reactive.” That is, they are not ideologues bent on world domination, elimination of infidels or the destruction of Israel. They respond to incentives like everybody else. But they do react to threats, intimidation, and mistreatment – and not in the way the hardliners in the West would prefer. The more unwarranted pressure the U.S. and its allies put on Iran, Khajehpour explained, the less cooperative the Iranians are likely to be.
Khajehpour was asked about the Ayatollah Khamenei’s religious fatwa condemning nuclear weapons as un-Islamic and his pledge never to seek them. Some of the panel seemed skeptical that this is a genuine declaration of intent. But Khajehpour reminded the room that a similar fatwa against the use of indiscriminate weapons was adhered to strictly by Iran during its 1980s war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons, and the Iranians refused to reciprocate in kind because of religious rulings against the use of such weapons, he said.
There was a point in the discussion which focused on the fact, as best anyone can tell, that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and has demonstrated no intention to start one. Still, nobody was moved to address what a strange kind of negotiating process this is. I’ve called it “the quirky” aspect of these negotiations. The U.S. approach seems schizophrenic. The Obama administration expended a certain amount of political capital by marching out his minions from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to reiterate the fact that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, despite constant rhetoric to the contrary. On the other hand, these unprecedented, high-level international negotiations are taking place in order to “restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” Which is it? The one hint of an answer to this puzzle was when Bijan Khajehpour said, vaguely, this is “not just about nuclear weapons.”
I suspect the other issues at play are primarily two-fold. First, Obama feels pressure to prove himself a big tough man. If he doesn’t, Mitt Romney, Republicans in Congress, and the Israeli Likud leadership will call him a wimp. So Obama is fine going through this rather dangerous charade, waging economic warfare on innocent Iranians, etc., so long as he gets to seem tough. The second issue at play is simply the old chestnut of regional hegemony over the Middle East. The region is in flux now, but the U.S. is still the dominant influence and intervener in the region. Iran is the exception to that rule.