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Under pressure

September 16, 2009

When Iran and the permanent Security Council members plus Germany meet in October, it'll be the first time Iran and the US hold formal talks in 30 years. But this is not the only reason why the meeting is important.

Iran's president Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called Iran's nuclear program not negotiableImage: AP

The negotiations scheduled for Oct. 1 in Istanbul come with a lot of baggage. Not only is it the first time high-ranking diplomats from Tehran and Washington will participate in official talks since the two countries severed diplomatic ties after the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. It is also the first time the international community will negotiate with Iran since July of last year.

A lot has happened since then. The US has a new president who, unlike his predecessor, is highly regarded internationally and is now fulfilling his campaign promise to negotiate unconditionally with Iran. Meanwhile Iran, according to various assessments, has made progess on its nuclear program, but the country's political establishment is still reeling from disputed presidential elections.

"I think as a symbolic step it is dramatic", says Rouzbeh Parsi, Iran expert at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, about the significance of the upcoming meeting. It is a first tangible result of the Barack Obama presidency that the US is willing to sit down with the Iranians, adds Parsi, who lauds the US president for his approach to engage with states that are considered to be hostile toward the United States.

Kai-Henrik Barth, a Qatar-based nuclear weapons analyst at Georgetown University, calls Obama's engagement policy with Iran risky, not only because of domestic opposition from conservatives and human rights groups, but also because Tehran's offer for dialogue didn't address the nuclear issue at all. But, says Barth, by agreeing to direct talks with Iran, the US has put pressure on Iran. "It actually forces the Iranian government to be very concrete in what it wants to talk about instead of simply claiming that no one wants to talk with them because they have strange pre-negogiation demands," concurs Parsi.

What's more, Obama has also set a public deadline for Iran to give the international community a clear indication on the status of its nuclear program by the end of September. By talking to Iran, he has proven his willingness to engage with Tehran before resorting to harsher measures, should those negotiations not yield any results, explains Parsi.

Germany's leverage

Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama
German Chancellor Merkel has supported US President Obama's Iran policyImage: AP Graphics/DW

While the spotlight at the Oct. 1 meeting will surely be on the US and its Iranian counterparts, Germany and the EU play an important part in dealing with Tehran as well. "Germany of course can play a major role, especially if the P5 plus one (the permanent five security council members plus Germany) ends (up) in trouble with China's and Russia's resistance to go to sanctions, Germany might be able to push for a unified response from the EU", says Barth.

Parsi adds that Germany is very important for Iran and that Tehran wants good relations with Berlin. "It's a huge trading partner and this is something they will not easily dispose of despite what they might say to the media." Should the negotiations with Iran fail and new sanctions be discussed, Germany could use its economic ties with Iran as a leverage, argue the experts.

While Barth and Parsi emphasize the importance of the meeting, they also warn against expecting concrete results from the negotiatons next month. "The first round will be very vague", says Barth. "I would be very surprised if a new willingness appears from the Iranian negotiatior to talk about substantive issues that are associated with the Iranian program." Parsi adds that the diplomats engaged in the talks are experienced enough to know that tangible results are unlikely to emerge at the first meeting after such a long hiatus.

Tehran's stance

More important than results, argue the analysts, is to try and get a sense of Iran's stance on its nuclear program, an issue that has been affected by the recent political turmoil in Iran. "You could say there was a kind of political consensus up until the presidential elections in Iran that nuclear technology was an inherent Iranian right according to the non proliferation treaty", says Parsi.

"Now that consensus has been shattered because everything else there was a consensus about in Iran (was) shattered through the presidential elections." Now, he adds, the nuclear issue has become more of a question of how President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can use it to try to shore up his tarnished legitimacy in the country.

An Iranian technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility outside of Isfahan
It is unclear how far along Tehran's nuclear progam isImage: AP

"If Ahmadinejad said on Monday that the Iranian nuclear program is off the table and then a day later Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki says, if the conditions are ripe, it might still be on the table, it just shows that there is some kind of range of perspectives possible," says Barth.

Knowing how close Iran actually is to producing nuclear weapons would certainly help to frame negotiations with the country. But a conclusive assessment of Tehran's nuclear program is hard to come by. Russia just days ago said it had no evidence that Tehran was seeking nuclear weapons while the US recently stated that Iran now had enough nuclear fuel to make a bomb but that it had deliberately stopped short of doing so.

So who is right?

"As funny as it might sound, both sides have a point", argues Barth. "If you look at the production of nuclear fuel, it is quite clear at this point that Iran has enough lowly enriched uranium for making highly enriched uranium out of it if they make the political decision to do so. We have no evidence that this has happened."

Therefore Russia is correct that there is no evidence for an actual nuclear weapon, says Barth. "However, the evidence that the IAEA has documented over the last couple of years shows quite clearly that there are areas of inconsistencies where the Iranians obviously are hedging and stalling."

Because the question of Iran's intentions and capabilities remains difficult to judge, Parsi suggests concentrating on the engagement process instead of technical evidence. "And therefore the confidence building work is what counts in the long run, because then you can gain confidence that the intention of the other party is not as nasty as you might otherwise suspect."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge