The Nuclear Negotiations with Iran are at a Pivotal Point

Behind the negotiators on both sides looms the “Sadat Military Option”

Next Saturday is the latest deadline for Iran to react in detail to the offer from what is called the 5 + 1group (China, France, Russia, the UK, the US and Germany).

Contrary to much speculation and comment, the background “noise” around these talks is more positive in the widest sense than for some time, with Israel and Iran indirectly choreographing a variety of issues through four different tracks recently. These four tracks are the discussions between Israel and Syria (mediated by Turkey), the recently completed swap of prisoners and bodies by Israel and Hezbollah (mediated by Germany), the ongoing contacts between Israel and Hamas on the Gaza ceasefire, and the discussions between Israel and Hamas on a prisoner exchange, both of which are mediated by Egypt.

None of these talks would have occurred if Iran strongly wanted to block them – so indirectly Iran has been sending positive signals to its deadly enemy, Israel. This does impact on the nuclear negotiations, including Israeli concerns on Iranian intentions, both generally, and specifically with regard to France, the US and Germany who are particularly aware of the background to Jewish fears.

Building on this positive foundation, two very different commentators M. Shamsolvaezin, a respected Iranian journalist, and Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 to 2005 see the possibility of a process evolving now that could lead to serious negotiations.

For a brief period, Iran would put a cap on the number of new centrifuges it is installing (which would slow down the volume of uranium it is enriching), while the 5 + 1 group would refrain from calling for new sanctions in the UN Security Council. Once serious negotiation start (which would involve the US), Iran would, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, suspend uranium enrichment and related activities for a period while further UN sanctions were also held in abeyance. In addition, and this is quite new, there is said to be an openness in Iran to discussions not only on the nuclear issue but on wider regional security issues, including Iraq, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.

Some official commentary in Iran, (but not all), has gone through an interesting shift in tone recently. Of most interest is the use of the word “peace” with respect to the strategy involved. Using the term “peace strategy” in the Middle East infers the need for security for Israel, whether that is ever stated explicitly or not. This may be a ground-breaking development.

Iranian negotiation style can and does create many problems. It is a dangerous, but unintentional, mixture of artful pretending (as part of a complex system of ritual politeness – Taarof), the Shia practice of dissimulation (Taqiyya) based on many centuries of oppression, both magnified by the great difficulty of getting a political class that is literally at war with itself to agree on any policy, particularly on such a sensitive subject.

On the other side the US, with the involvement of the third-ranking diplomat in the State Department at the recent talks with Iran in Geneva, may have begun to realise that its previous policy was getting it nowhere. Coercive diplomacy can only fail when its ultimate objective is regime change. Once regime change is taken off the table, properly structured diplomacy, offering incentives as well as penalties, can be successful even in the most unlikely circumstances. The Bush administration is at last beginning to accept the fact that in dealing with Iran it must be willing “to take yes for an answer” from a regime it detests but has to deal with. (It took it many years to accept the exact same situation with North Korea).

Fischer and others worry that some of the recent “noise” from Iran has been quite negative. Supreme Leader Khamenei’s comments recently are a good example, hopefully primarly directed for internal consumption while a significant shift occurs. The critical question, that will be clarified quite soon, is whether the current Iranian political class can itself “take yes for an answer” from the US and the international community. If internal dissension stops a clear decision in the negotiations, the result could be unintentionally catastrophic particularly to a suspicious Israel and the many Arab states that see Iran as a threat. In that regard the widely (mis) quoted US NIE of last November has one very relevant comment. That was that it assessed that the Iranian regime acted on the nuclear issue in a rational “cost-benefit” manner. Hopefully the NIE Assessment is right and Iran will send the right positive signals over the next few days and weeks on its nuclear negotiations position.

Absent such, a major danger looming in the background is what has been termed the “Sadat Military Option”. This is a reference to the approach adopted by then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat who launched the 1973 war against Israel in the clear knowledge that military victory was impossible. The strategy was simply to obtain political leverage and change the strategic landscape on the Israeli/Egyptian conflict. As a strategy it proved a massive success.

If Israel determines that negotiations with Iran are unlikely to proceed they might use the “Sadat Military Option” of a limited military strike against certain Iranian nuclear assets. Such, carried out in the full knowledge that it would not destroy the nuclear programme, would be expected to provoke the US and the international community to put a huge amount of pressure on Iran and to focus on solving this problem once and for all. The article on this matter in the July 2008 issue of Joint Force Quarterly, (the journal of the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff), concluded as follows: “In short, the Israeli “Sadat” scenario is one for which American policymakers and military commanders need to plan in order to be ready for Iranian retaliatory measures, especially in the US Central Command area of responsibility”.

The next few weeks and months are critical. We must all hope that the positive “noises” win out in the internal conflict within the Iranian political class.

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