A fresh round of nuclear talks between the EU and Iran gets underway this Tuesday. Despite sanctions and threats of war, there has been little progress, so what good are even more negotiations?
What is the dispute about?
At the heart of the dispute is the enrichment of uranium. While Tehran insists it has the right to enrich uranium for civil purposes, the West believes that Iran is really seeking to develop nuclear weapons. To settle that question, the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA is supposed to send inspectors to the country, but it says its work is being hampered by Tehran.
The so-called 5+1 group (Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council China, France, UK, Russia and the US) are negotiating with Iran over the issue. The group asks Iran to permit substantive inspections and to limit enrichment to 20 percent. In return, sanctions put on Iran over the enrichment dispute would be eased.
What can be expected from the Tuesday meeting of EU and Iranian diplomats in Istanbul?
In the best case scenario the talks might lead to further talks. The meeting is part of wider attempts to at least keep up the dialogue with Tehran after talks in June in Moscow failed to yield any results. The 5+1 group had called upon Iran to stop enrichment, to close down the enrichment facility in Qom and to export the uranium enriched so far. Iran in turn demanded recognition of its right to uranium enrichment and a lifting of the sanctions. The result of the Moscow talks was that both sides laid down their expectations and demands and in the end merely had a better picture of their significant discrepancies. Neither the EU's High Representative for Foreigen Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton nor the Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili will be in Istanbul, but should the meeting bring progress it will lead to further talks on a higher level.
Why is there no agreement?
One possible answer is: Because the issue is complex. "Even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is ambivalent," says Christian Tuschhoff, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. The NPT bans military - but not peaceful - use of nuclear energy, and just where to draw the line is difficult, especially with regard to uranium enrichment.
Another possible answer is: Because Iran doggedly continues to develop nuclear weapons. Iran stands by the NPT, which expressly prohibits this, but that doesn't mean much, says security expert, Tuschhoff. "The moment one withdraws from the treaty it would become much more difficult to hide these activities."
Is there evidence that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons?
No. However, enrichment is, in its own right, suspicious. "For Iran, it makes no sense to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear program – it's oversized and way too expensive," notes analyst Michael Brzoska, Director of the Hamburg-based Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.
In its last report in November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) specifically mentioned that its investigations in Iran had pointed towards "activities relevant to the development of a nuclear weapon."
Iran's behavior is also cause for concern: Its enrichment efforts were kept secret for a long time and currently nuclear inspectors from the IAEA have no access to the Parchin atomic facility, where nuclear detonators were supposedly tested.
Satellite images suggest that buildings in Parchin have since been torn down to erase any traces of the activities actually going on there.
Why would Iran be interested in nuclear weapons?
"One reason for the program is fear of the United States," says peace researcher Brzoska. "In Iraq, they saw that the United States was prepared to intervene if it didn't like a government." Furthermore, Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers: Russia, Israel, Pakistan, India and the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy in the Persian Gulf.
Is a compromise even conceivable?
Brzoska believes there is a negotiable solution, provided the West is prepared to accommodate Iran. "In return for a comprehensive, verifiable control mechanism, one could allow the Iranians to enrich uranium up to 19.8 percent purity," he says.
This would mean that Iran would be in a position to build a nuclear weapon within a year, but everybody would know about it immediately. "This is not an optimum solution for either side, but it's the best under the existing constellation of interests," Brzoska maintains.
Israel views that quite differently, saying Iran's nuclear program is cause for grave concern and triggers visions of another Holocaust. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to exterminate Israel. A nuclear-tipped missile launched by Iran would reach Israel in a matter of minutes.
Are we moving toward war?
For years, the United States has repeatedly said that all options are on the table, including a military one, but that it would prefer a diplomatic solution. Israel's government, earlier this year, signaled on several occasions that it was preparing a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Military experts disagree on whether Israel's Air Force has the capacity to carry out such an operation successfully. There is agreement, however, that such a strike at best would only slow down Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The consequences of military action are incalculable: Positive scenarios predict few civilian casualties and Iran forgoing retaliation. Negative scenarios see the whole region consumed in a conflagration. No outsider can say with any certainty, whether Israel is serious, or whether it is just wants the international community to apply more pressure to Iran.
Author: Dennis Stute / gb, ai
Editor: Mark Hallam