WASHINGTON, DC – Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have again hit a wall, but the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears unconcerned. Indeed, Khamenei seems convinced that neither the United States nor Israel will attack its nuclear facilities – at least not before the US presidential election in November.
Ironically, while Khamenei is no fan of democracy, he relies on the fact that his principal enemies are bound by democratic constraints. Khamenei controls Iran’s nuclear program and its foreign policy, but the US and Israel must work to reach consensus not only within their respective political systems, but also with each other.
MADRID – The latest round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the so-called “5+1” group (the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China – plus Germany) has now begun. Following more than a year of deadlock, after negotiations in January 2011 led nowhere, this dialogue is for many the last chance to find a peaceful solution to a nearly decade-long conflict (in which I participated closely from 2006 to 2009 as the West’s main negotiator with Iran).
The objective of the talks, chaired by the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is still to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment and to comply with Security Council resolutions and its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But several factors heighten the current negotiations’ strategic importance.
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in March, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Monday began a five-day Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna. The objective, according to Director General Yukiya Amano, is to identify the ‘lessons learned’ from the accident and determine how to improve the Agency’s efforts to increase nuclear safety worldwide. To be sure, public confidence in the safety of nuclear power plants has plummeted in recent months, particularly in Japan and Germany where demonstrators have taken to the streets demanding nuclear energy be phased out.
A glance at the conference‘s stated aims and objectives, and at what the media has thus far reported, suggests that discussion of these ‘lessons learned’ has focused on : 1) safety in nuclear installations, 2) emergency preparedness, and, 3) effective first-response to accidents. While the savvy reader will know that the focus of international conferences can change as unpredictably as the weather, a distinct pattern is emerging.
On Monday, the conference adopted a Declaration on Nuclear Safety which expresses the participants’ resolve to enhance nuclear safety around the world. Among the measures it proposes are : 1) enhancing knowledge about nuclear safety; 2) promoting international cooperation and coordination around the issue; and, perhaps most relevantly to Fukushima, 3) meeting the public expectation to provide “factually correct information and assessments of nuclear accidents.”
But the response to the Fukushima accident must address not just the technical and political issues that have dominated the conference so far but, moreover, how we fundamentally think about nuclear safety. What the Japanese people experienced – an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by a nuclear disaster – should, in this sense, be an urgent wake up call.
Although the rest of the Middle East is now rightly in the spotlight, Iran, with a simmering opposition movement and a highly controversial nuclear program (the focal point in regional diplomacy prior to the ‘Jasmine revolutions’) will no doubt return to the forefront of regional affairs very soon. However, the diplomatic equation in the conflict between Iran and the West may be changing, and contrary to the sometimes hysterical warnings of some commentators in the West and the bellicose rhetoric of Iran’s president, Tehran is in a corner. Below some points to keep in mind when analyzing the situation:
What country, more precisely what regime, currently faces an existential threat and finds itself surrounded by the world’s most powerful fighting force on three of four borders (principally Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, but also Iraq): nuclear-armed Israel or Iran?
How much of this all is a securitization game? Prime Minister Netanyahu and especially Israel’s political right keep the focus on the country’s purported ‘insecurity’ and off the West Bank; President Ahmadinejad, in turn, exploits the external threat to consolidate support back home and divert attention from his lousy track record in actually governing Iran.
If Iran decides to weaponize, will it not first withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? The 1980 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the NPT, which the US and Iran have both signed and ratified, respectively, demand it. Although this instance could very well prove the exception to the rule, Iran is not North Korea. Iran maintains relations and accords with many other states in the international system, all of which count on it to uphold some modicum of predictability. It is likely to do so despite its belligerent rhetoric.