Paul Pillar

Jalili's Briefing Book

The Moscow talks will be the latest test of the West's seriousness and willingness to reach an agreement. Insofar as the meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad were similar tests, the test results were not encouraging. We need to continue to give the other side, however, every opportunity to demonstrate that it really wants an agreement. This does not imply a change in our basic negotiating posture. After all, we already have made quite clear our willingness to back away from enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. This ought to be the most important possible concession for Westerners, if all of their concern about a so-called Iranian “break-out capability” is to be believed. What the P5+1 put on the table at Baghdad was clearly unacceptable, with no mention of any easing of the economic warfare beyond some spare parts for airplanes. It was unacceptable even without taking into account the blatant inconsistency of placing demands on the Islamic Republic regarding nuclear activities that are not placed on others. As our wayward former colleague Hossein Mousavian put it, the implied trade would be “diamonds for peanuts.”

Although our basic posture may not change, there are things our negotiators at Moscow could effectively emphasize. One is to insist that the P5+1 side do what it has not yet done, which is to specify exactly what would be required for the economic warfare to wind down. Emphasizing this will not only help explore what possibilities there may be for future mutual concessions but also will call the West's bluff as to what the sanctions really are all about. Our negotiators also should use every opportunity to get the P5+1 team to realize that despite the extremely narrow Western focus on our nuclear activities, the two sides are engaged in a much larger bargaining relationship. Although the P5+1 rebuffed our suggestions at Istanbul regarding other topics to discuss, their negotiators need to be reminded that there are many ways in which the Islamic Republic can either help or hinder what is in Western interests. Similarly, the P5+1 negotiators need to be aware that although inspection arrangements with the International Atomic Energy Agency are being discussed in another forum, they really are part of the same overall bargaining relationship. Although we have been quite forthcoming in opening up our nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection, we are not going to give up all of our bargaining chips regarding something like admission of inspectors to military facilities if we are getting nothing in return.

Our negotiators need to keep uppermost in mind the costs and dangers of appearing to bow to the West with one-sided concessions made under pressure. Doing so would be a blow to the power and prestige of the Islamic Republic. It would likely produce internal political difficulties, especially in light of the very broad support that a peaceful nuclear program has among our citizens. There are limits to what even the Supreme Leader could accomplish politically in such circumstances. One-sided concessions under pressure also would be likely to elicit only more pressure—and indeed much commentary in the United States appears to regard sanctions in exactly this way. Given that we still do not know whether most of the economic warfare ever would stop no matter what we do or what we concede regarding the nuclear program, we have to insist up-front on something specific and significant before we make any further concessions.

The Obama regime's posture toward the negotiations is shaped overwhelmingly by two short-term considerations. One is to lower the risk of Israel starting a war, which would be highly damaging to American interests. The other consideration is the president's effort to get reelected. Both of these objectives imply an interest in keeping the negotiations going for the next few months but in maintaining hardline demands—and refusing to reduce economic pressure on the Islamic Republic—so as to stay reasonably consistent with Israel's extreme hard-line posture. This unfortunately will encourage continued inflexibility by the P5+1 at the negotiating table. The only hope for more U.S. flexibility in the next few months is if Obama concludes that reaching at least an interim agreement with the Islamic Republic would not hurt and might even help his chances for reelection. There is a basis for such a conclusion, although that does not seem to be the dominant thinking so far in Washington.

There may be greater hope for some flexibility on the part of the European portion of the P5+1, especially given Hollande's election in France. Europe's severe economic difficulties may work in our favor. Those difficulties should weaken support for an all-pressure posture toward the Islamic Republic because of the effects on the price of oil—either because of sanctions or because of market reactions to anti-Iranian saber-rattling (what has been referred to as the “Netanyahu gasoline tax”).