(photo credit: REUTERS)
Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) resumed last week. After seven months of on again, off again talks, the parties have made no substantive progress on curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program. If there was little reason for optimism in previous rounds of discussions, there is even less reason to be hopeful for a breakthrough now with Western states’ attention focused on the threat present by Islamic State.
The wily President Hassan Rouhani hopes that in exchange for agreeing to join a US-led coalition against Islamic State, the P5+1 will be more lenient in allowing Iran to develop its nuclear program. Diplomats involved with the negotiations say the West remains adamant that the talks should deal exclusively with the nuclear program.
But as the November 24 deadline set for the talks approaches, representatives of the P5+1 might soften their stance to strike a deal.
“Iran is a very influential country in the region,” Reuters quoted an unnamed senior Iranian official quoted as saying.
“But it is a two-way street. You give something, you take something.”
Outgoing EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the P5+1 team negotiating, seems particularly keen on reaching an agreement before stepping down. Ashton would like to show a major accomplishment and an agreement with Tehran would be a perfect end to her stint.
The Obama administration also seems to be getting soft on Iran. At least that was the impression one could easily get from Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz after he returned last week from a meeting with White House officials.
After noting that the Iranians have not budged on the two most important issues: centrifuges and the heavy water reactor in Arak, he encouraged Washington not to compromise.
“We are deeply concerned that a deal might a bad deal, and therefore want to reemphasize President Obama’s very important principle and statement that no deal is better than a bad deal,” Steinitz said. “This principle should really be adopted and implemented, because it really is the case.”
Steinitz was apparently under the impression after meeting with US officials that the Obama administration was in need of a reminder of its commitment to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Linking the fight against Islamic State with talks on the nuclear program would be misguided for a number of reasons. First, the Islamic Republic’s Shi’ite leadership will fight to defeat the Sunni Islamic State whether or not Tehran joins a US-led coalition. For the mullahs, this is an existential war against an implacable enemy that directly threatens Iranian influence in Shi’ite-majority Iraq. There is no reason to cave in to Iranian demands in exchange for support against Islamic State that the Iranians will have to supply regardless.
More substantively, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has pointed out, allowing Iran more leeway in developing nuclear weapons would be like allowing Syria’s Basher Assad to hold onto chemical weapons in order to fight Islamic State.
The Iranians are more desperate than ever to attain nuclear weapons capability. They realize that having a nuclear bomb would be a game changer in the Sunni-Shia clash. They see nuclear weapons as an existential imperative.
There is no reason to believe the mullahs will willingly stop developing nuclear arms. Only crippling sanctions combined with a credible military threat have any chance of compelling them to slow, if not stop altogether, their march toward nuclear weapons capability.
The risks presented by a nuclear-capable Iran are sobering.
The Islamic Republic, not unlike Islamic State, is governed by irrational theological dictates that call for conquering and disseminating a radical stream of Islam through violence. Iran supports terrorism in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Armed with a nuclear umbrella, the Islamic Republic would be infinitely more dangerous.
The preoccupation with Islamic State is principally the result of the recent gains made by the terrorist organization, its savagery and the fact that it took the world by surprise. The group’s ability to maintain gains and persevere, however, is less clear. In the long term, a nuclear Iran would be far more dangerous than Islamic State. It should treated as such.