Iran expert Alex Bigham spoke with DW-WORLD.DE about Thursday's meeting between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. Iran wants proliferation and recognition, he said.
Is Iran asking for too much in return for reducing its support of insurgents in Iraq?
DW-WORLD.DE: Mr. Bigham, what is your assessment of Monday's meeting in Baghdad between the US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq ?
Alex Bigham: I certainly think the talks are a positive sign, and this may be a tentative start of a period of cooling off in relations. There has been an indication from the Iranians of a willingness to meet in a month's time, which is a welcome sign.
Solana (left) and Larijani at a meeting in Berlin last September
The talks are limited of course, really to one issue: Iraq. There are obvious reasons why America would want to seek Iranian help in Iraq -- in order to improve stability in the country and to reduce the flow of funds and arms to insurgents who are attacking coalition forces.
The difficult question is why Iran would want to assist coalition forces. There will no doubt be elements in Iran who want the Americans to remain bogged down in Iraq because they see that as a buffer to a possible attack on Iran. But it seems that those advocating dialogue both in Washington and Tehran are winning the argument for the moment. They want to see stability on Iran's border with Iraq, an area which has suffered from terrorist acts against the Iranian government.
It's certainly in Iran's long term self-interest to improve security and stability in Iraq.
Iran 's nuclear program had not been on the agenda. Are you nevertheless surprised that the issue did not arise?
I am not surprised it wasn't discussed. Neither side wants to be seen to be compromising on the nuclear issue at this stage, given domestic pressures in both Iran and America. The US doesn't want to replicate or divert attention from the IAEA, UN and EU structures. They deliberately want this to be seen as a disagreement between Iran and the international community, not between Iran and America.
Will Monday's talks have an impact on Javier Solana's meeting with the Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani on Thursday?
Intransigency on both sides blocks Europe's negotiations, said Bigham
The Baghdad talks may offer some kind of reassurance to the Iranian government in terms of the likelihood of military action, but there will need to be concrete results in order for the Americans to be convinced of progress. Although the Baghdad talks may help as a confidence-building measure, which is welcome, necessary, and frankly overdue, both the EU and Iran are seeing the discussions on Iran's nuclear program as a separate issue from the future of Iraq.
What approach do you expect Solana to take?
Solana's approach is not to engage in a negotiation directly about the nuclear issue, but to try to get an agreement to have a negotiation which would involve the P5+1 ( Editor's note: The five per manent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the US -- plus Germany). However, the sticking point is the precondition the US has set that Iran suspends uranium enrichment before negotiations. The Iranians have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of talks with any preconditions.
What do you expect to come out of the talks?
There doesn't seem to have been a fundamental shift in either side's position, so the possibility of an agreement is small.
The difficulty in separating the issues of Iraq and the nuclear program is that Iran seems to want two things in return for reducing its support for insurgents in Iraq: Proliferation and recognition of its regional role. These are effectively red lines for the Americans, which make overcoming the stalemate a difficult, long term process.
Do you agree with the EU's policy towards Iran ? What should the EU be doing differently?
Ayatollah Khamenei is the main decision-maker on Iran's foreign and security policies
The EU has made a great deal of effort to negotiate to Iran. The main barriers to progress are the relative intransigency of both the Iranian and the American position on the nuclear issue. Another problem is the internal divisions within Iran. Larijani is clearly a growing political player in Tehran for the moment, but it is the Supreme Leader, Khamenei who will make the final decision on Iran's security and foreign policy. Ayatollah Khamenei is reluctant to make a final decision on the nuclear issues for fear of alienating one of the factions in Iranian politics and undermining his own position.
One option that needs renewed consideration is El Baradei's proposal of a mutual "time-out" -- Iran suspending enrichment while the UN suspends sanctions. That is one option that should at least be put on the table.
Alex Bigham is an Iran analyst at The Foreign Policy Centre in London .