The two-day nuclear talks between Iran and the West, the first formal negotiations since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, resumed this week in Geneva. One promise of Rowhani’s presidency was to reach an agreement with the West on Iran’s nuclear program in an effort to ease West-imposed economic sanctions and put an end to the country’s prolonged economic isolation. The Rowhani administration has pledged to offer a proposal that addresses all the concerns on Iranian nuclear facilities, activities, and enrichment as well as to smooth Tehran’s international relations.
The talks in Geneva, held on Tuesday and Wednesday, involved representatives of Iran, primarily Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) including Germany, known as the P5+1 group.
The U.S.-educated foreign minister, Zarif outlined a proposal— by speaking in English and using PowerPoint— to representatives of the world powers. The major question though, is how the West and Iran have perceived the nuclear talks, and if the discussions signal a positive, optimistic political and diplomatic move?
Highly positive atmosphere?
The first crucial point is that Iranian authorities did not hesitate in rushing to call their outline a positive success. Araqchi and the spokesman for the Iranian team stated after the negotiations that “serious” talks were conducted in a “highly positive atmosphere.”
Iranian officials pointed out that they sought to keep the details of Iran’s proposal confidential for the time being, a Machiavellian move by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad ZarifMajid Rafizadeh
However, beyond these political polemics and posturing, Iran finds it imperative to spread the narrative that the nuclear talks were successful. Economically speaking, Tehran is in a complicated situation, urging Iranian authorities to depict a positive picture domestically (to appeal to their constituents and parliament) and regionally for their neighbors’ concerns over Tehran’s clandestine nuclear activities and hegemonic ambitions. Tehran also seeks to portray a positive image globally to alleviate Tehran’s unprecedented level of isolation.
The World Bank has pointed out that sanctions pushed Iran into an economic recession last year. Accordingly, between March 2012 and March 2013, the Iranian currency, the Rial, lost an estimated 80 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. This has led to an increase in domestic prices as well as high inflation. Tehran’s oil exports have decreased from roughly 2.5 million barrels to less than a million. The number of declared bankruptcies in the nation has increased, with many factories operating at less than half capacity due to their inability to import many of their supplies. The combinations of all these factors have endangered the ayatollahs’ and ruling clerics’ hold on power.
To address these domestic economic concerns, the frustration of the ordinary Iranian people with the system, as well as Tehran’s trade and diplomatic isolation, Iranian authorities find it critical to send a message to the region and other countries that the two-day nuclear talks in Geneva were effective and successful. Firstly, President Rowhani can show the Iranian people that he has stuck with some of the pledges he made, aiming to increase Tehran’s oil sales and exports, avoiding the possibility of double recession, and removing any potential risks against the government’s hold on power and a change in the status quo of the political structure. Nevertheless, whether the proposal meets the requirements remains to be seen.
The nuances of the two-day talks
Iranian officials pointed out that they sought to keep the details of Iran’s proposal confidential for the time being, a masterful and Machiavellian move by Zarif, Rowhani, and the rest of team. The confidentiality and secrecy of Iran’s proposal will allow less scrutiny from other countries, scholars, analysts, journalists, politicians, and political scientists.
This issue particularly manifests itself in case of the Israeli reaction to the talks and to the new Iranian administration’s charm offensive, softening tone, and diplomatic outreach to the United States and Western allies. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in reference to the current nuclear talks and sanctions that it would be “a historical mistake” to lift them, and it would be a mistake to ease pressure on Tehran. Netanyahu added that any action to let up on the Iranian government would only buttress and strengthen Tehran’s “uncompromising elements.” He pointed out that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “will be perceived as the winner.”
Although the Iranian leaders desired to keep their plans secrets, several issues have become clear from Araqchi’s statements, reports by Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).
Despite pressure from the United Nations Security Council members, and despite calls for Tehran to suspend its nuclear enrichment, the Iranian government has clearly pointed out that it should have the right to enrich uranium and that the nation will continue spinning the centrifuges. Tehran will not suspend its nuclear activities, as the talks between Iran, P5+1 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are ongoing.
Finally, from the perspective of the Iranian leaders, the two-day talks were a definite success, specifically when several Western diplomats, including Michael Mann, a spokesman for Catherine Ashton (the European Union’s top foreign policy official and the lead negotiator in the talks with Tehran), pointed out that the Iranian proposal had been “very useful.”
However, the major issue is whether Tehran will be willing to take further steps, particularly at a time when the nation has acquired significant nuclear technological gains. Iran’s nuclear abilities have advanced considerably since 2011, and many experts point out that Tehran has the capacity to quickly produce a nuclear weapon considering the fact that Iran has increased thousands of advanced centrifuges and that Iranian engineers are working on a plant that will produce plutonium. Tehran has made it more difficult for the West to increase its sanctions and further isolate Iran. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the next steps in the negotiation process would ease the existing sanctions and prevent Tehran from having nuclear weapons’ capabilities.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington, DC.