Earlier this year, I had long discussions with two former European ambassadors to Iran recalling the 2003-05 negotiations between the European Union and Iran over its nuclear program, the last substantive engagement between the West and the Islamic Republic before a decade-long standoff. Both Paul von Maltzahn, German ambassador from 2003 to 2006, and Sir Richard Dalton, Britain’s ambassador from 2002 to 2006, called the talks a missed opportunity.
“We underrated the tactical capacities of the Iranians and overstated the importance of a zero tolerance [of uranium enrichment],” said von Maltzahn. “With hindsight the inducements [put forward by the Europeans] were too small for the concession of a prolonged period of no enrichment,” said Dalton.
Last month’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the world powers have raised hopes that negotiations can now make the breakthrough that failed to materialize in 2003-05. This is partly because United States policy has changed. In 2003-05, President George W Bush, in the wake of change in Iraq, had ideological zeal for upturning the Middle East, including the Islamic Republic. Hence Washington insisted Tehran should have no uranium enrichment at all and so scuppered the talks.
For Dalton, the background to the 2003-05 talks was “hostility of the United States and particularly Israel to the idea of an accommodation with Iran, partly because of lack of trust and partly because of the lingering hope that by pushing hard they could get not only what they wanted on the nuclear program, but maybe more, including changing the regime.”
Barack Obama has proved pragmatic, coming to office promising “engagement” with Iran while in office extending financial sanctions and working with Europe to introduce new measures that have halved Iranian oil exports in around 18 months. President Obama has seen sanctions not as a means to overthrow the Islamic Republic but to bring it to the table.
Iran, too, has changed with the experience of eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Pragmatists in Iran were dismayed even as his rhetorical flourish over Israel and social egalitarianism — however popular across the Islamic world — alienated Europe, the US and the Arab establishment without achieving tangible benefits for Iran.
Ahmadinejad’s populist inflationary economic management at home as well as international bravado came at a high price for Iran, both in the near collapse of economic growth and in regional tensions. Hassan Rouhani’s stunning victory in June’s presidential election showed a desire among Iranians for a calmer, more practical approach.
But there is no simple rewind button to return to a deal that might have been made in 2003-05. Things have changed. Firstly, the Iranian nuclear program is far more advanced. Recent reports from the UN watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirm Iran’s steady, if slow, progress in using the faster IR2M centrifuges for enrichment, and in producing 20 percent-enriched uranium. Both moves bring Iran closer to a break out point when it could in theory quickly produce the 90 percent-enriched material required for a bomb.
Any deal capping Iran’s program — either by the number of centrifuges or by restricting enrichment to the 5 percent level most useful for civil purposes — will surely leave Tehran with a far more substantial program than would have been the case had an agreement been made in 2003-05.
Secondly, the regional situation is very different. It was only slowly becoming apparent in 2003-05 that the US-led invasion of Iraq had consequences way beyond the Iraqi borders, and was indeed creating a geopolitical shift that would eventually lead Saudi Arabia to turn in 2011 against Bashar al-Assad as means to recoup Syria for the Sunnis to make up for the loss of Iraq to the Shia.
The unpredictability of Sunni-Shia tension and the continuing ripples from the Arab Spring should give food for thought to anyone now assuming a US-Iran deal. Shell and Total have shown almost indecent haste in already talking so openly of a return to Iran once sanctions ease.
Pains tend to add to each other while one pleasure distracts from another; likewise, destructive factors feed off each other. The more advanced state of Iran’s nuclear program helps opponents of rapprochement — exiled Iranian groups, conservatives within Iran, the US right, Israel and the Saudis — to talk up Tehran’s strength and so undermine the process. And the unstable regional situation offers plenty of volatile material for anyone wishing to strike sparks.
Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for nearly two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran