April 17th, 2012
03:30 PM ET

Takeyh: 'New atmosphere' in Iran negotiations

Editor's Note: The following is reprinted with the permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The just-concluded first round of Iran negotiations with Western powers has produced "a new atmosphere," says Ray Takeyh, CFR's top Iran expert. Just months ago, there was talk of Iran potentially closing the Strait of Hormuz, and of possible Israeli military attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities, but now all parties, Takeyh says, would like "to take a step back and relieve some of the tensions that have surrounded this Iranian nuclear issue in the past couple of months." Takeyh says the Iranians understand that the harsh tone was not serving them well, and that ending tough economic sanctions and forestalling an Israeli military strike are factors in their "being receptive to a negotiating process" and perhaps even willing to curb some uranium enrichment activities. Here's a transcript of the discussion:>

Iran and the P5+1 group [the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany] met over the weekend in Istanbul, and after it ended, there were positive statements from both sides as they announced an agreement to meet again in Baghdad on May 23. Is there a new mood in all of these negotiations? The last time the two sides talked, the talks broke up with negative comments all around.

I think there is perhaps a new atmosphere. By that, I mean that all of the parties involved, and particularly the United States and Iran, and to some extent, probably even Israel [which is not a party to the talks], would like to take a step back and relieve some of the tensions that have surrounded this Iranian nuclear issue in the past couple of months. Everyone wants to calm this situation down a little bit, and the best way of doing that is to have a process that you can point to and express some degree of optimism about the prospects for that process. So this actually reduces tensions in some ways.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement when the talks concluded, saying that Iran got a "freebie" for five weeks to keep processing uranium. This led to a tiff with President Obama, who said the Iranians are facing severe sanctions, so it's not a "freebie." Are there still tensions between the United States and Israel on this?

Just before these meetings, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, gave an interview in which he said it is imperative for Iran to stop producing 20 percent enrichment and close the Fordo facilitythat's nestled in the mountains. The Israeli expectations are that more progress should be made on areas of their concern and sensitivity. This particular meeting obviously did not produce such an outcome–maybe the next meeting will not produce such an outcome either–so the pace that Israelis want to see Iran's nuclear trajectory arrested at would be different from the 5+1's, simply because Israelis are more concerned and sensitive about some of those technologies.

What's your sense of Iranian policy on this? Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says that nuclear weapons are "a sin," but do you think Iran's policy is still to develop nuclear weapons?

I think their policy at the very least is to develop all the ingredients that a nuclear weapons arsenal requires. There is a debate on whether they'll cross the threshold when they get there. That probably will determine an entire spectrum of issues that are not obvious today–what is taking place in the region, what is taking place in the Persian Gulf, what is taking place in Iran itself domestically. The commitment to have a multifaceted expansive nuclear infrastructure is not something that they seem to be stepping away from, at least not yet.

How is Iran doing right now in the region? With Syria in deep trouble, is Iran feeling more isolated than ever?

There are several ways of looking at this. First of all, there is [a] sort of cold war taking place in the Middle East today between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And that cold war is playing itself out to some extent in Iraq, certainly in Syria, Lebanon, and so forth. And when Iranians look at the region, they seem to feel–and increasingly, others are joining them in that opinion–that the Bashar al-Assad regime may prove in fact more durable, that he may somehow survive this insurrection and this wave of protest, and if Assad survives and can somehow fortify his rule, then he's even more tightly bound to Iran than he was before because he has no other real interlocutors. He's been expelled from the Arab League, sanctioned by the international community, censured by every other international body. The rise of Islamist movements doesn't necessarily mean that they want to emulate Iran, but the messy politics in Egypt is better for Iran than former President Hosni Mubarak's opposition to Iran.

The tone has certainly changed, in part because the Iranians understand that the harsh tone was not serving them well.

The region is turbulent and preoccupied with Islamist concerns, and there is a political conflict with Saudi Arabia that is playing itself out. So, it is a challenging regional environment. But from the Iranian perspective, they have dealt with turbulent regional environments before, and they have some experience in navigating it. Now, I don't think Iran was ever the strong, powerful regional actor that it is sometimes portrayed, and I don't think today it is this feeble, isolated state, as some people suggest.

When President Obama talks about Iran now, he talks about Iranians suffering immensely from sanctions put on by the United Nations and Western powers. Is the oil embargo that crippling?

The sanctions that have been imposed on Iran are indeed quite significant, particularly with the oncoming European sanctions that will prohibit [the] purchase of Iranian oil starting in July. Iran can lose about one-third of its oil exports–about eight hundred thousand barrels. They may be able to make some up if they are prepared to sell at a discount. But there is no question that the country is subject to economic distress. I don't know what "crippling" looks like, but it is certainly a country beset by significant economic difficulty.

Would that explain the sort of upbeat mood that's been created over the last couple of days? Back in January and February, we had sharp warnings back and forth, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz.

The tone has certainly changed, in part because the Iranians understand that the harsh tone was not serving them well. Second of all, two factors have come together that have impacted their decision-making–it is impossible to disaggregate them–which is more important: the unprecedented economic distress or the threat of Israeli military strike? People can account for how they view Israel's likelihood to strike Iran–whether they agree, disagree, think it will happen or not happen. But if you're an Iranian defense planner, you have to take that with some degree of seriousness, and you have to figure out how it is that you can mitigate the possibility of Israeli strike, even if you do not think that possibility is very high. So having a different approach, or at least a different tone toward negotiations–being receptive to a negotiating process, and potentially even putting even some curbs on a specific aspect of your enrichment activity, limiting the 20 percent enrichment–may actually alleviate your economic difficulties, but also forestall a potential Israeli military strike.

Of course, in this political campaign year, the last thing the United States wants is an Israeli strike, I assume.

I would say that at this particular point, most international actors, certainly those that are involved in negotiating with Iran–the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, the United States, and most of the international actors, probably don't want a military conflict whose consequences are unpredictable in the Gulf. I would add to the United States many other countries that share that disposition, because it's potentially destabilizing and could lead to cascading violence, and some of the dire consequences that are sometimes attributed to this particular act make everyone hesitant about it.

Do you think this softer negotiating approach will be followed by any internal easing in Iran? There's been no sign of any easing of the domestic crackdown, has there?

No. I think the domestic crackdown will persist, for several reasons: the Iranian regime is even more suspicious of its citizens, given these sort of manifestations of people power that have taken place in the Middle East. The Arab awakening had two implications for Iran: it essentially suggested that aroused citizenry, mobilized, can actually affect government change. That's not a good message for the Iranian ruling class. On the other hand, it has led to a surge of Islamist parties in most of the Middle East, in which the Iranians have taken a more benign view towards Tunisia, Egypt, or what have you. So it's a double-edged sword, but I would say at this particular point that the tone and the posture of the accommodations they have taken abroad have not translated into a similar domestic political opening.

Topics: Iran • Nuclear

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Bob M

    I do not believe the Iranian Government has any intention of discontinuing uranium enrichment programs. This is another stall tactic to buy time and hopefully stop the sanctions in July. Their goal is power and they want to control the middle east as much as possible. Be forewarned they are patient.

    April 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Amir

      Iran stated that it is not going to stop Enrichment. Everyone knows that and you can be sure that it is a red line for Iran and Iranians. The only possible thing is to limit the enrichment to 3-5% which is negotiable

      April 17, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • George Patton

      @Bob M. Is that not the goal of the right-wing thugs in Washington, Bob M? Of course it is and make no mistake about it, either!!!

      April 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  2. Ludwig von Leiderhosen

    Why is Germany invited?

    April 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Patrick

      Germany is invited because they have all the money and they are singlehandledy keeping Europe afloat.

      April 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  3. Hahahahahahaha

    Blah, Blah, Blah, Death to America!, Blah, Blah, Blah. Hahahahahahaha

    April 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      You may just get your wish Hahahahahahaha, if the Amrican people keep on electing these right-wing bozoes(Republicans and "blue-dog" Democrats) over and over again and that looks ominously closer to the truth as time marches on! Ignorance is the biggest problem this country has!

      April 18, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • david

      Look whos talking BONEHEAD!!!!

      April 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  4. shahin

    Why would Khamenei tell the entire Iranian people that it is a sin to have and/or use nuclear weapons and then build them anyways? The IR does lie to its own people, but not like this. If they DO lie, they usually mask it one way or another to still keep their own followers faithful. So why would they teach their few loyal followers left that something is a sin, if they weren't planning on honoring that rule? It just doesn't make sense. Religion is the only power they have left to use on a small part of the Iranian people. They wouldn't give up that little power by doing something that would ensure anger among their own followers.If anything, muslims follow the rules of those they deem worthy (prophets, imams, etc.) to the letter, so Khamenei can not afford to disappoint those who follow his every command by disobeying the very thing he just called a sin.

    April 17, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Thinker23

      WHY would Rafsanjani say that MUSLIMS SHOULD USE NUCLEAR WEAPON AGAINST ISRAEL, genius? and WHY would anyone trust Khamenei more than his predecessor considering that Iran is doing everything possible to convince the world that IT IS DEVELOPING NUCLEAR WEAPONS?

      April 18, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • shahin

      Rafsanjani later claimed that he was sorry for his statements and that he opted for a nuclear free Middle-Eas, but a mindless warmongering bigot like yourself wouldn't give a sh! t about looking up facts.


      April 18, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
      • Patrick

        Yeah, ahahaha he said he was sorry, he didn't mean it.

        April 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
      • shahin

        Patrick: If you could speak Farsi you would have known that Rafsanjani's original speach about how 1 nuclear bomb would be enough to destroy Israel was not as harsh as it seems in the translation. The statement he makes is actually quite ambiguous and could have been interpreted in 2 ways: Either he was saying that nuclear weapons SHOULD be dropped on Israel OR that he was pointing out the dangers of having a nuclear armed country in the Middle-East. Since he sincerely apologized for this statement afterwards (beside being criticized by numerous other Iranian politicians which you of course don't know about), I tend to believe that Rafsanjani really didn't actually mean to threaten Israel.
        In the end, it's not what they say, it's what they do. And they haven't done anything, so why the paranoia?

        April 19, 2012 at 7:46 am |
      • Patrick

        If there was only one statement, I would believe you. However, there are too many statements to ignore.

        April 19, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  5. George Patton

    This indeed is great news if true. I'm sick and tired of all this right-wing mumbo-jumbo about Iran building nuclear weapons which in most probability isn't true in the first place! What the Iranians need to do is to make the same deal with the U.N. as South Africa did sometime ago, that is, to have nuclear power for peaceful purposes only! Let's all just cut the right-wing, warmongering crap!!!

    April 17, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Well, if you're "sick and tired of all this right-wing mumbo-jumbo about Iran building nuclear weapons" WHY don't you put an end to it by explaining HOW WOULD IRAN POSSIBLY USE HUNDREDS OF ITS NUCLEAR CAPABLE INTERMEDIATE- AND LONG RANGE BALLISTIC MISSILES THAT ARE VIRTUALLY HARMLESS WITHOUT PROPER WARHEADS?

      April 18, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    For almost nine years on and off, Western diplomats have held talks with Iran about its nuclear program, without much success. Last Saturday in Istanbul although progress was made that led to further talks and negotiations, Netanyahu and some in the West would still want to keep up the pressure on Iran to stop further enrichment. Previous efforts have failed and the history of setbacks make them sceptical. The West says it doesn't know whether Iran really means to negotiate a peaceful solution to this nuclear issue. Yet Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi hinted the West should start with "confidence-building measures", which would "speed up the process of negotiations reaching results".

    April 18, 2012 at 6:03 am |
  7. such bs from the mainstream press about iran...stop shilling for obama and report the FACTS.

    IRAN WILL NEVER GIVE UP BHER NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM. After near 2 decades and billions of dollars, you think they're going to just give it up? hell no...they've been working hard to disperse it, hide it, so that they can appear to come down from the tree yet they have many more tress in hiding. What makes obama and the media poodles think they can lie so blatantly to the people? or are they taking YOU, US, for idiots....this whole thing of talks is an absolute farce and obama's secret backchannel messages are basically saying to iran, you make me look good and I will make you look good. its all for appearances and the election. Iran wants sanctions removed and a victory for their PR and obama wants his own victory claiming that he talked iran down....

    what grand theatre..problem is, its not real and it wont work.

    April 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |

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