Moscow Meeting Make Or Break For US, Iran

Julian Borger at The Guardian notes desperation behind the scenes heading into the Moscow summit between the P5+1 and Iran.

The foreign ministry political directors from the six-nation group (US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia) are meeting in Strasbourg today and tomorrow to try to figure out how to keep the talks on track. The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton is due to talk to Jalili by phone tonight, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is to fly to Tehran on Wednesday to try to ensure that the Moscow round is not remembered as the dead-end of nuclear diplomacy.

From Washington, Laura Rozen, who follows the talks for Al Monitor, reported last week that the Obama administration was weighing up a possible change of tack, pushing for a comprehensive deal rather the piecemeal, confidence-building proposal put on the table in Baghdad.

European diplomats said they had heard mixed signals from the policy debate in Washington and would wait to see what the American chief negotiator, Wendy Sherman, brought to the table in Strasbourg. Their bottom line: this will ultimately be a deal between the US and Iran and we will back anything that has a chance of breaking the impasse.

That the Europeans are essentially bystanders shouldn’t surprise anyone. These talks have always been about the U.S. and Iran, with the rest there as interested parties to be sure but mainly to give a sheen of international consensus to whatever the two protagonists may hash out.

Both of those protagonists are clearly internally conflicted, and neither is going about negotiations in the most efficacious manner (more on this shortly from Cheryl, I hope) but it’s still clear that, in Moscow, one faction or the other of both party’s internal feuds must prevail. Moscow is make or break time.

If either or both side’s hawk prevail, the Moscow talks will break down and I think that’ll mean war in fairly short order. I believe the Obama administration cannot be enjoying that prospect: they can either delay until after the election with Romney and his spokespeople hounding them every step of the way and possibly winning the election thereby, or they can embroil America in a new war of choice. Starting such a war, one that’d be hugely unpopular with their base, before Afghanistan is properly wound down and with Syria still hanging around like a bad smell is just as likely to lose them the election. (Anyone who thinks domestic electoral politics isn’t a big driver in international negotiations of this magnitude, in an election year – I’ve a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.) Beyond that, there’s the simple fact that war with Iran would be messy, bloody, economy-ruining expensive and would ignite the entire region as well as polarizing the world’s great powers. The Obama administration’s saner heads have to be thinking “let’s not do that”, surely. There’s no up side except for the pro-Israel and Iran-hater lobbies in the Obama administration, which are congruent but not quite matching sets. However, I think that the most prominent members of those sets aren’t likely to be serving in a new Obama administration anyway, more probably following Hilary Clinton out of government.

In contrast, if any kind of deal can be reached it can be spun as a success whether it is or not, partisan supporters will embrace it as a path to peace not war, and it’ll be down to conflicting arguments between the Obama and Romney camps in the run up to November. That’s far more preferable and winnable a dynamic.

Iran’s motivations are rather murkier to me. I continue to believe the vast majority of Iran’s movers and shakers want a capability rather than a capacity, what is known as the “Japan Option”: the ability to move rapidly to produce a weapon if needed without actually crossing the threshold to being a nuclear-weapons state. Such would allow Iran a great deal more regional clout and constrain the planning of other regional powers without inviting automatic pariah status as has been promised nations which have nukes outwith the NPT without first ensuring they brown-nosed the US enough. That means they must retain sufficient enrichment infrastructure and stockpiles of LEU to do rapid enrichment to HEU should they find themselves under imminent threat, and that’s going to be non-negotiable for Iran. The lessons of Iraq, North Korea and Libya underline another lesson: if you can’t have the Japan Option it’s better to just build the nuke than not – a public weapon removes the threat of regime change by military intervention.

However, Iran has to get there from here. It’s planners have to be aware that, contra Western reports that a strike on Iran would only put any weapon program back a few years, the attacks wouldn’t end at just one. The initial airstrikes would simply be a prelude to eventual Iraq-style invasion unless weaponization could be undertaken very rapidly indeed after those airstrikes. the Japan Option is entirely preferable for Iran and I hope it’s leadership would bend over backwards to accept any deal that allows it. deals can always be revisited and improved later. Still, Iran has its own factions of West-haters and militaristic expansionists, as well as others playing this issue for domestic political gain, who might throw a wrench in the works.

Assuming rational actors, we should see a breakthrough in Moscow. The stakes are too high for a failure. Unfortunately, people and the world are often not rational.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • (Looking up from editing a post about this.)

    If things go badly in Moscow, it will not be a good thing, but I doubt it will be war. Iran would have to stand up and say, “Damn you infidels, we will have a nuclear weapon to exterminate the Jews and establish the caliphate” or something like that to provoke war. And I think they have that much sense, anyway.

    It’s looking like some of the uproar Iran has been fomenting this last week or so is an expression (once again, rolls eyes) of their internal disagreements.

    Everyone knows the stakes. China and Russia are speaking to the Iranians this week, presumably telling them to get their act together.

    But the stakes for the individual Iranians involved in the negotiations may be imprisonment, torture, death, or exile for things they may have thought were okay. That’s a difficult barrier.

  • …being bystanders. The dynamics are such that they do not independently have the capability of driving a breakthrough deal, but they can independently drive things to a position where it is significantly harder to reach such an agreement. If memory serves Parsi’s latest was good on this.

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

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