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'New Atmosphere' In Iran Negotiations

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 17, 2012

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The just-concluded first round of Iran negotiations with Western powers has produced "a new atmosphere," says Ray Takeyh, CFR's top Iran expert. Just months ago, there was talk of Iran potentially closing the Strait of Hormuz, and of possible Israeli military attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities, but now all parties, Takeyh says, would like "to take a step back and relieve some of the tensions that have surrounded this Iranian nuclear issue in the past couple of months." Takeyh says the Iranians understand that the harsh tone was not serving them well, and that ending tough economic sanctions and forestalling an Israeli military strike are factors in their "being receptive to a negotiating process" and perhaps even willing to curb some uranium enrichment activities.

Iran and the P5+1 group [the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany] met over the weekend in Istanbul, and after it ended, there were positive statements from both sides as they announced an agreement to meet again in Baghdad on May 23. Is there a new mood in all of these negotiations? The last time the two sides talked, the talks broke up with negative comments all around.

I think there is perhaps a new atmosphere. By that, I mean that all of the parties involved, and particularly the United States and Iran, and to some extent, probably even Israel [which is not a party to the talks], would like to take a step back and relieve some of the tensions that have surrounded this Iranian nuclear issue in the past couple of months. Everyone wants to calm this situation down a little bit, and the best way of doing that is to have a process that you can point to and express some degree of optimism about the prospects for that process. So this actually reduces tensions in some ways.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement when the talks concluded, saying that Iran got a "freebie" for five weeks to keep processing uranium. This led to a tiff with President Obama, who said the Iranians are facing severe sanctions, so it's not a "freebie." Are there still tensions between the United States and Israel on this?

Crisis Guide: IranJust before these meetings, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, gave an interview in which he said it is imperative for Iran to stop producing 20 percent enrichment and close the Fordo facility that's nestled in the mountains. The Israeli expectations are that more progress should be made on areas of their concern and sensitivity. This particular meeting obviously did not produce such an outcome--maybe the next meeting will not produce such an outcome either--so the pace that Israelis want to see Iran's nuclear trajectory arrested at would be different from the 5+1's, simply because Israelis are more concerned and sensitive about some of those technologies.

What's your sense of Iranian policy on this? Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says that nuclear weapons are "a sin," but do you think Iran's policy is still to develop nuclear weapons?

I think their policy at the very least is to develop all the ingredients that a nuclear weapons arsenal requires. There is a debate on whether they'll cross the threshold when they get there. That probably will determine an entire spectrum of issues that are not obvious today--what is taking place in the region, what is taking place in the Persian Gulf, what is taking place in Iran itself domestically. The commitment to have a multifaceted expansive nuclear infrastructure is not something that they seem to be stepping away from, at least not yet.

How is Iran doing right now in the region? With Syria in deep trouble, is Iran feeling more isolated than ever?

There are several ways of looking at this. First of all, there is [a] sort of cold war taking place in the Middle East today between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And that cold war is playing itself out to some extent in Iraq, certainly in Syria, Lebanon, and so forth. And when Iranians look at the region, they seem to feel--and increasingly, others are joining them in that opinion--that the Bashar al-Assad regime may prove in fact more durable, that he may somehow survive this insurrection and this wave of protest, and if Assad survives and can somehow fortify his rule, then he's even more tightly bound to Iran than he was before because he has no other real interlocutors. He's been expelled from the Arab League, sanctioned by the international community, censured by every other international body. The rise of Islamist movements doesn't necessarily mean that they want to emulate Iran, but the messy politics in Egypt is better for Iran than former President Hosni Mubarak's opposition to Iran.

The tone has certainly changed, in part because the Iranians understand that the harsh tone was not serving them well.

The region is turbulent and preoccupied with Islamist concerns, and there is a political conflict with Saudi Arabia that is playing itself out. So, it is a challenging regional environment. But from the Iranian perspective, they have dealt with turbulent regional environments before, and they have some experience in navigating it. Now, I don't think Iran was ever the strong, powerful regional actor that it is sometimes portrayed, and I don't think today it is this feeble, isolated state, as some people suggest.

When President Obama talks about Iran now, he talks about Iranians suffering immensely from sanctions put on by the United Nations and Western powers. Is the oil embargo that crippling?

The sanctions that have been imposed on Iran are indeed quite significant, particularly with the oncoming European sanctions that will prohibit [the] purchase of Iranian oil starting in July. Iran can lose about one-third of its oil exports--about eight hundred thousand barrels. They may be able to make some up if they are prepared to sell at a discount. But there is no question that the country is subject to economic distress. I don't know what "crippling" looks like, but it is certainly a country beset by significant economic difficulty.

Would that explain the sort of upbeat mood that's been created over the last couple of days? Back in January and February, we had sharp warnings back and forth, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz.

The tone has certainly changed, in part because the Iranians understand that the harsh tone was not serving them well. Second of all, two factors have come together that have impacted their decision-making--it is impossible to disaggregate them--which is more important: the unprecedented economic distress or the threat of Israeli military strike? People can account for how they view Israel's likelihood to strike Iran--whether they agree, disagree, think it will happen or not happen. But if you're an Iranian defense planner, you have to take that with some degree of seriousness, and you have to figure out how it is that you can mitigate the possibility of Israeli strike, even if you do not think that possibility is very high. So having a different approach, or at least a different tone toward negotiations--being receptive to a negotiating process, and potentially even putting even some curbs on a specific aspect of your enrichment activity, limiting the 20 percent enrichment--may actually alleviate your economic difficulties, but also forestall a potential Israeli military strike.

Of course, in this political campaign year, the last thing the United States wants is an Israeli strike, I assume.

I would say that at this particular point, most international actors, certainly those that are involved in negotiating with Iran--the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, the United States, and most of the international actors, probably don't want a military conflict whose consequences are unpredictable in the Gulf. I would add to the United States many other countries that share that disposition, because it's potentially destabilizing and could lead to cascading violence, and some of the dire consequences that are sometimes attributed to this particular act make everyone hesitant about it.

Do you think this softer negotiating approach will be followed by any internal easing in Iran? There's been no sign of any easing of the domestic crackdown, has there?

No. I think the domestic crackdown will persist, for several reasons: the Iranian regime is even more suspicious of its citizens, given these sort of manifestations of people power that have taken place in the Middle East. The Arab awakening had two implications for Iran: it essentially suggested that aroused citizenry, mobilized, can actually effect government change. That's not a good message for the Iranian ruling class. On the other hand, it has led to a surge of Islamist parties in most of the Middle East, in which the Iranians have taken a more benign view towards Tunisia, Egypt, or what have you. So it's a double-edged sword, but I would say at this particular point that the tone and the posture of the accommodations they have taken abroad have not translated into a similar domestic political opening.

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