Clock is ticking on nuclear talks with Iran
Berlin - A diplomat directly involved in the nuclear talks with Iran said they were “very intense, both in the political and the technical discussions”.
Negotiators face a June 30th deadline for agreeing to details — and means for implementation — of the interim Lausanne agreement reached in early April.
Paul von Maltzahn, Germany’s ambassador in Tehran from 2003- 06 and now retired from the diplomatic service, advised patience.
“They should not stick too much to timetables,” he said. “If June 30th doesn’t work, then go on. This is important enough.”
Von Maltzahn conceded that any extension would give more time and more ammunition to the talks’ opponents on both sides. “I’m speaking of one week, two weeks, not a long time,” he stressed, “because then, of course, the process unravels.”
Those with experience in negotiating with Iran — such as von Maltzahn, who was in Tehran during the 2003-05 nuclear talks with the European Union — are well aware of the challenges of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.
First, there is Iranian domestic politics. “A revolutionary country, its diplomats and negotiators, can be outflanked by radicals claiming to be the true exponents of national values,” said Sir Richard Dalton, British ambassador to Iran from 2002 to 2006.
Iranian politicians or diplomats “often speak of external enemies as a way of fostering internal unity”, he said. “There is usually lively argument [in Tehran] among the factions and the personalities in the leadership, and it takes time to resolve them. Hence the need for patience and a thick skin.”
European diplomats well remember Hassan Rohani, now Iran’s president but in 2003-05 its lead nuclear negotiator as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, taking time out for phone calls at delicate points during talks at Sadabad palace in north Tehran. Everyone knew he was calling Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seeking direction.
But the Europeans also recall Iranian diplomats sometimes floating proposals without making clear if they were hypothetical, much less if they had the backing of the leader. Von Maltzahn remembers informal meetings with Hossein Mousavian, who played a prominent role on the Iranian team, effectively as Rohani’s deputy.
“Mousavian flew kites, trying out ideas,” said von Maltzahn. “He came to the residence [of the German ambassador in Tehran] a few times.”
Some diplomats saw such kite-flying as a deliberate effort to confuse and were especially suspicious when Iranian negotiators warned time was running out for a deal because they were under growing pressure from their own hardliners.
This was never an easy judgment for the Europeans. Indeed, just as the Iranians had warned, the talks’ failure and the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president led to the removal of both Rohani and Mousavian as negotiators and even, briefly, to Mousavian’s arrest in 2007.
Dalton traces the confusion in part to an approach the Iranians tended to follow: “In discussion, Iranian representatives are dogged and determined — although they can also change their line frequently and not necessarily consistently. They can be economical with the truth, to put it politely.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, their experience in Tehran both von Maltzahn and Dalton express cautious optimism in regard to the current talks. In contrast to 2003- 05, the United States is not only directly involved but has agreed to accept in principle that Iran can continue some uranium enrichment.
It is France that is taking the toughest approach, especially in demanding access for the International Atomic Energy Agency to military sites and that Iran give more thorough explanations of alleged past research.
“France wants to rake up the past, especially the PMD (possible military dimensions),” said von Maltzahn.
While Iran’s official line, strongly expressed by Khamenei, is that allowing access to military sites would cross its “red lines”, von Maltzahn believes Rohani in 2003- 05 indicated the issue was not entirely closed.
“Rohani regarded this as a playing card, something that might be played at some stage,” he said. “The big thing for Iran is really ‘non-discrimination’, so they’re not treated differently to anyone else.”
This is a matter of presentation as well as substance. For the talks to work, all sides must be able to claim a victory. For von Maltzahn, Tehran’s thinking is not only rational but points towards an agreement. “Iran has come to conclude that the nuclear option is not necessary for them to have more power projected in the area,” he said.
“With the decline or disappearance of Iraq, and with Egypt’s lack of a regional role, de facto Iran is the most powerful nation in the area. They don’t need nuclear parity with Israel, and in any case it’s far too costly. So why go that way?”