How to Assess Progress in the Iran Nuclear Talks

By Chen Kane – I have been thinking lately about ways to assess progress in the nuclear talks with Iran. Yes, handshakes here and there and a “pleasant atmosphere” won’t cut it for me. Here is a very good piece in the New York Times by our colleagues at Carnegie  that does the job quite nicely.

Since the negotiations are expected to be long and highly uncertain, Mark  Hibbs, Ariel Levite and George Perkovitch provide us with some good benchmarks to measure progress:

Oil prices: The oil market is exceptionally sensitive to the possibility of a military escalation in the Persian gulf; the traders who set prices tend to be sophisticated, with sources of information among policy makers. Global oil prices, which have been above $100 a barrel all this year, are widely believed to reflect a risk premium of $20 to $25. Any significant decline in that premium following the new negotiation round would reflect optimism about the course of diplomacy. It would also further weaken Iran’s economy — putting even more pressure on Iran to negotiate seriously — while helping distressed Western economies and helping President Obama’s chances of re-election.

Access for verifiers: One urgent concession required of Iran is that it grant the International Atomic Energy Agency far greater access to its nuclear plans, facilities, records and personnel. In the absence of this, most other steps would ring hollow, making it unlikely that sanctions on Iran would be phased out — a goal high on Iran’s list of demands. Since time would be needed to test Iran’s sincerity about disclosures, and its cooperation with the atomic energy agency after years of delay and deceit, Iran’s willingness to under take such steps early on would both be a prerequisite for, and a signal of, progress on the negotiations.

The bargaining issues: If the focus of talks remains stuck on an attempt to resurrect an earlier deal to trade a foreign supply of nuclear fuel for Iran’s agreement to ship its existing stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country, the diplomatic process will be headed in the wrong direction. Such a deal would fall short of what Iran and its counterparts across the table need in order to end the crisis. Anything less than early Iranian gestures on suspending higher levels of enrichment and conducting enrichment outside its commercial facility at Natanz would most likely doom the negotiations to failure. So would a refusal by the other side to suspend the implementation of new sanctions if Iran extended such gestures.

U.S.-Iran dialogue: In earlier rounds, Iran usually resisted conducting parallel direct discussions with the United States on the margins of the six-party talks. Yet such one-on-one dialogue is essential for success. Iranian willingness to relax its position, and American willingness to sustain bilateral dialogue in an election year, could indicate a prospect of resolving the nuclear crisis.

Frequency and duration of meetings: Previous unproductive negotiating rounds have been truncated and followed by long pauses. Such pacing would be inconsistent with the urgency of this round. Anything but frequent and prolonged negotiating rounds (though some might be unpublicized or employ back channels) would indicate that the negotiations were headed for failure.

A summer deadline: Sorting out all the issues associated with Iran’s nuclear program, let alone other issues that include Afghanistan, Iraq, support for terrorism and human rights, would take a long time. But in the absence of visible progress by the end of June, new sanctions will go into effect, making it even more painful for Iran to negotiate under pressure. Israel would be likely to conclude, in such a case, that the only option left was military. Diplomacy, in other words, has 11 weeks to yield results. Still, it is not unrealistic to think that most of the criteria described here could be met in the first round of renewed diplomacy — if Iran and its counterparts are determined to move from crisis to problem-solving.

Personally, I found the last point made to be the most interesting – – – the three argue that diplomacy has 11-weeks to yield a favorable result. If these negotiations fail, Israel, according to the authors, may be left with the military option. That’s an interesting observation from an Israeli ex-official (full disclosure, Eli was my boss). I, however, disagree.  I would give negotiations more time to achieve their full potential, though how much more I am not so sure.

If negotiations then fail, my guess is Israel will act militarily in December 2012.  It would happen after the November 2012 General Election in the United States and before the Presidential Inauguration in January 2013. You may recall that the 2012 WMDFZ conference is planned for December later this year. Aside from the text of the Action Plan requesting the conference to take place in 2012, the conference date was chosen for precisely the same reasons – –  it is after the U.S. elections and before the inauguration. So, December 2012 is shaping-up to potentially be a very busy month in the Middle East…

Photo: Ma Yan / XINHUA / LANDOV