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Iran Coming to the Table

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: April 30, 2007

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With Iran finally agreeing to attend a security conference on Iraq (NYT), negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program may also move forward with reports that key European states are mulling a new diplomatic approach. EU officials appear to have softened their stance (al-Jazeera) and may allow Iran to keep its existing centrifuges and agree to a suspension of further UN sanctions if Iran agrees to a moratorium on future production. In other words—as the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana recently told Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani—Europe would not demand the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program as a prerequisite to negotiations. Larijani did not provide many details about the meeting but sounded optimistic (IRNA). Even some U.S. officials say they might entertain (AP) such an offer, though the State Department denies it would allow Iran to retain any homegrown enrichment capacity.

President Bush, in an April 24 interview with Charlie Rose, did not rule out direct negotiations with the Iranians—but said the United States sought talks only on the issue of Iraqi security, not on Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says it will send its foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to Egypt later this week for the second round of multilateral talks on Iraq. Tehran says it feels rebuffed on a number of fronts. Last month’s meeting in Baghdad marked the first time in a few years Iranian diplomats sat across the table from their U.S. counterparts. But the Iranians claim they had no say (WashPost) on the location and agenda of the meeting. They also said Iraqi officials reneged on a promise to release five Iranian operatives seized by U.S. forces in Iraq. Hence, Iran says it will not send Mottaki to Egypt for the follow-up meeting. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari have urged Iran to reconsider.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have escalated over the past few months, given the deployment of a U.S. carrier strike group in the Gulf, the detentions in northern Iraq, and UN sanctions. Secretary Rice, in an interview with the Financial Times, called it a “rebalancing” of the relationship and said “in the private sector people are making assessments of the reputational and investment risk associated with Iran.” The Iranian business community has taken notice of the change. In this interview with CFR.org, Abbas Bolurfrushan, former President of the Iranian Business Council in Dubai, says if “the grip is tightened, the economic effect will force more Iranians to get out of the country and do their business someplace else.” A growing percentage of the overall population may also be turning against (PDF) the government’s nuclear program, writes Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment in the Washington Quarterly. Most Iranian businessmen hope for a normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations, outlined in this CFR timeline, and for sanctions to be lifted.

There are competing views on how best to accomplish this goal, which has eluded diplomats for nearly three decades. Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls for sticks, not carrots. “In the classic terms of statecraft, the sticks need to be potent enough to concentrate the minds of Iranian leaders on what they have to lose,” he writes in the New Republic. But Laura Secor, an editorial page editor at the New York Times, suggests the “do-nothing” approach to behavior change—that is, allow reform to come from within, not from outside pressure. “This is an epic struggle, invested with no small measure of heroism,” she writes in the New Republic (subscription required). “But that struggle and the associated heroics are not ours. They belong to the Iranians.”

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