Despite eight months of negotiations with the E3+3, Iran remains committed to its highly-controversial nuclear program. Talks over the past year followed a similar pattern to previous discussions, with the E3+3 failing in its attempts to establish the true nature of Tehran’s ambitions. Negotiations were also conducted against the backdrop of growing political unrest across the Middle East and the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Yet despite continued frustration and the growing threat of conflict, 2013 might turn out to be the year in which negotiations take a turn for the better.
In terms of improving dialogue with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran appears determined to pick up where it left off in December 2012. Despite failing to agree upon a framework for the future inspection of Iranian nuclear facilities, both sides will resume talks on February 12th. Back in August, the IAEA also reported that Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium had remained unchanged since May, when Tehran converted supplies for medical purposes.
Another source of inspiration may come from the re-election of Barack Obama. In remarks made shortly after his victory, the U.S. President reiterated the importance of negotiating with Iran. Along with promises to push for the resumption of direct dialogue with Tehran, Obama also openly suggested that Iran might be able to maintain a low-scale nuclear program on condition that it provides credible evidence that it is being used for peaceful purposes.
But while opinion polls suggest that many Iranians view Obama’s foreign policy outlook favorably, government officials continue to highlight perceived discrepancies between his overtures and actual policies. To many in the Iranian parliament, these are not that much different from the previous administration. They may also point to Washington’s recent demand for additional sanctions against companies and individuals linked to Iran’s nuclear program as proof that Obama is merely picking up where the Bush administration left off.
Tough economic sanctions also help to enhance the credentials of Iran’s leading politicians. Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament and potential candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, likens the sanctions to a form of “economic dictatorship”. And there can be no denying that they are having a damaging effect on the Iranian economy. The dramatic reduction in Iranian oil exports over the past year prompted a spike in inflation and the weakening of the Rial. It is also estimated that Iran’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrunk by 3.5% in 2012. Economic sanctions have even caused a severe shortage of medical supplies that cannot be adequately replaced by domestic manufacturers.
However, this dual-track strategy is unlikely to produce the results that the E3+3 wish to see. Iran’s increasingly perilous economic conditions conversely ensure that sanctions will undermine prospects for further dialogue and an eventual agreement. The more that Iran is forced into a corner by the sanctions, the less likely it will be to compromise. Trita Parsi from the National Iranian American Council shares this view and also argues that sanctions make war more rather than less of a possibility. To overcome this, opponents of economic sanctions suggest that the E3+3 needs to treat Iran as an equal at the negotiating table and offer face-saving measures. In return, Tehran will need to take the transparency of its nuclear program to an altogether different level.
Finally, there are signs that Iran might be thinking seriously about re-engaging with the United States. Despite using his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to accuse the West of ‘nuclear intimidation’, outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also suggested that Iran is ready for talks with Washington. Crucially, neither Ali Larijani nor his brother Sadeg (who is head of the judiciary) – who retain close ties with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – have written off the prospect of rebuilding relations. However, Sadeg’s warning that closer ties between Washington and Tehran “cannot be built in a night” suggests that future negotiations are likely to be as contracted and complicated as the past.
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