Calculations in Geneva
As negotiations between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council over the country's nuclear programme continue in Geneva, Iran may be winning the upper hand, writes Mustafa El-Labbad
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Ahmadinejad shakes hands with El-Baradei, upon his arrival for a meeting in Tehran on Sunday
The first round of negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany has triggered conflicting assessments, some holding that Tehran offered fundamental concessions in the talks, with others countering that the beginning of the talks is of itself a victory for Iran. Both opinions merit closer inspection.
While opinions vary over prospects for the Geneva talks, most agree that they have engendered a positive climate. But to speak of "the beginning of the end", as is heard in the media, is undoubtedly premature. "The end of the beginning" seems more appropriate, as it will certainly take much more time and effort on the part of the negotiating parties to reach a definitive result.
It was only after gruelling battles of wills between Tehran and Washington and Washington and Moscow that the Iranian nuclear question reached Geneva in the first place, and the interplay between the often vying interests of the five Security Council countries plus Germany must be taken into account, a dynamic that can be palpably felt beneath the surface in Geneva.
While all six states have one factor in common, which is their aversion to a nuclear Iran, they are nevertheless deeply divided over how to deal with this question and the price that may need to be paid to Tehran. These are differences that are difficult to smooth over through diplomatic gestures, and it may be useful to look at the motives of the individual parties and the political configuration of the negotiating table in order to predict different scenarios.
One of the most frequently repeated images in television coverage of the Geneva talks has been that of the Iranian delegation headed by a grinning Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Said Jalili on one side of the negotiating table, and, on the other, the representatives of the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, as well as EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana.
The highly polished table reflects the crystal chandeliers overhead, and elegant bouquets of flowers and glasses of water are strategically placed around the table. The cameras pan the room for over a minute before leaving the negotiators to get down to business, while observers on the outside knit their brows as they engage in conjecture.
If the negotiating table appears to serve as a physical divide between adversaries, the reality is much more complex. It is probably more accurate to regard the table as abstract and the interests of the various parties around it as the substance that either propels the parties apart or draws them together.
In other words, Iran is not totally alone on its side of the table. China, for example, may not support the prospect of Iran's possessing nuclear weapons, but it does back Tehran's official position regarding its nuclear programme. China imports 14 per cent of its petroleum from Iran, and it has invested billions in energy-related projects in the country. What happens to Iran is thus of great importance to Chinese national security.
China is opposed both to any military strike against Iran or harsh economic sanctions against the country. While Beijing would not risk a military stand-off with the US over this issue, it will undoubtedly do its utmost to rein in America's anti-Iranian impulses.
China is not the only power seated on the Iranian side of the negotiating table where national interests are concerned. Russia, which has long served as Iran's international cover, also has extensive geopolitical and economic interests in Iran, and it is the foremost exporter of nuclear technology to Tehran.
Iran, for its part, is the sole guarantor of Russian access to the Gulf with its huge oil and gas reserves, and it is Moscow's partner in the Caucasus and Central Asia. More importantly, Iran is the ace in Russia's hand when it comes to influencing decisions taken in Washington with regard to matters that concern Russia proper, the Russian geopolitical sphere and Moscow's international role.
Moscow has already played the Iranian nuclear card to counter US pressures over Georgia and Ukraine. There is, therefore, every reason to expect Russia to continue its support for the Iranian nuclear programme and to oppose military sanctions or severe economic sanctions against the country.
Russia would lose its Iranian ace in two cases. The first would be if the regime in Tehran were to be overthrown, and the second would be if an agreement were to be made with Washington over Iran's nuclear programme and regional role.
It is precisely this latter somewhat lower risk that separates the Russian from the Chinese position, for Russia's support for Iran stops at lines defined by the limits of Russia's interests. While Russia is not quite seated next to Iran at the negotiating table, it has edged its chair closer to the Iranian side.
It is also noteworthy that Russia's representative at the negotiating table is Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, an expert on American rather than Iranian affairs. Ryabkov has led negotiations with the US over such vital Russian concerns as strategic arms reductions in Europe. His presence in Geneva affirms the extent to which one of the major dimensions of the Iranian nuclear question is the contest of wills between Moscow and Washington.
This is further confirmed by the person the Americans have chosen to represent them in Geneva. Like Ryabkov, Under- Secretary of State William Burns is not an Iran expert, but served as his country's ambassador to Moscow from 2005 to 2008. Clearly, Washington, too, saw the first round of talks with Iran as an extension of its negotiations with Russia, even if Ryabkov and Burns happened to be located on the same side of the table in Geneva.
This Moscow-Washington dynamic has also been underscored by the nature of the European representation in Geneva. In a sense, Europe is doubly represented, once by the representatives of the foreign ministries of France, Britain and Germany, and again through the presence of Solana. The latter is the sole representative able to speak for Europe as a whole, and he is a former secretary- general of NATO and close ally of Washington.
The political configuration of the negotiating table in Geneva can therefore be summed up as follows. On one side sits Iran, China and Russia, the latter keeping a little distance from the previous two. On the other sits the US, Britain, France and Germany, in order of their closeness to the American position.
Seating arrangements are not as lopsided as they might initially have appeared, and while the Western powers broadly agree about the Iranian question, they differ on the details. The European powers are reluctant to call the use of military force into play, and they are perhaps also disinclined to impose incapacitating sanctions.
Germany, with a relatively large share of foreign trade with Iran, is the most dovish, in contrast to the US and Britain, which have a history of poor trade relations with the country. France, which has undertaken high-profile projects in Iran such as the Tehran metro, will probably stake out a middle road between its less hawkish stance and French President Nicholas Sarkozy's ambitions to supplant Britain as Washington's number one ally in Europe.
As unified a front as the trans-Atlantic alliance might try to maintain on their side of the negotiating table, the longer negotiations last the greater the chances that the contradictions between them will come to the surface. If thinking starts to turn to tougher economic sanctions or the military option, then the smiles that prevailed during the first round of talks will fade, and not all the frowns will be directed at Tehran.
Iran scored several gains during the first round of talks, with the condition that it halt uranium enrichment activities before the negotiations start clearly having been dropped. Moreover, the US cannot reasonably strike Iran militarily as long as negotiations are in progress, and Iran has gained considerably in terms of the country's international image.
Visible corroboration of this is the fact that following his recent visit to New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki headed to Washington in order to visit the Pakistani Embassy, which is overseeing Iranian interests in the US. The purpose was not to check up on how the Iranian office in the embassy was faring, but rather to polish up the country's image in advance of the Geneva talks.
Yet, the Obama administration has certainly not come away empty-handed from Geneva either. Above all, it won Iranian approval to allow international inspectors into the Qom nuclear plant, something that can be portrayed domestically as a "concession" wrung out of Iran and being much to Obama's advantage in the face of noises from the pro-Israeli lobby in the US.
The administration has also gained much-needed time in order to finalise its options in the Middle East. After having failed to compel Tel Aviv to halt settlement activities, a little breathing space is what is needed, with Obama being well aware that the time for words may be nearing an end and the time for action being at hand.
Iran could help facilitate an American exit from Iraq and Afghanistan, were it able to come to an agreement with Washington over its regional role, and the Obama administration is probably keen to take talks forward. For its part, Tehran must be silently rejoicing at the difficulties the Americans are having in Afghanistan, both because of the leverage this could give Tehran in future negotiations and because it wards off the likelihood of a US military strike against the country.
What is certain is that at the moment Obama must be weighing his options. Should he strike a deal with Iran? Or should he push the threat of sanctions, or even take military action? What lies ahead is by no means clear, but the decision Obama takes will be tough for him and quite possibly for Iran and the rest of the region.