Slavin and Albright Talk Baghdad

Though the Baghdad talks have been criticized in the press for failing to achieve a breakthrough, a discussion hosted this week by the Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force suggested that there is hope in the fact that “these were the first substantive discussions between Iran and the international community on the issue of the nuclear program in more than two years.”

The discussion, led by Ploughshares Fund grantee and prominent journalist Barbara Slavin brought together some of the leading issue experts to debrief the results of the negotiations. According to them, the Baghdad talks saw an exchange of proposals between the P5 +1 and Iran. Discussions thus far – both in Istanbul and in Baghdad – have centered on the issue of uranium enrichment. The P5 +1 proposed that Iran stop enriching uranium to 20%, ship out its existing stockpile of uranium enriched to that level, and shut down its nuclear facility in Qom. In return, they offered fuel for Iran’s Tehran research reactor, safety upgrades to the reactor and to a civilian nuclear power plant, and spare parts for Iran’s civilian airliners (an offer that Slavin calls a “stale carrot”). The proposal made no mention of lifting or postponing the existing and scheduled sanctions that are challenging Iran’s economy.

Perhaps that’s why the Iranians rejected the offer, countering with a proposal in which Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium under NPT standards. Though no compromise was reached, both sides agreed to meet again in Moscow to continue talks. Slavin suggested that at this point it is a question of who will blink first, or “whether there’s a deal in which both sides blink.” Whatever the outcome, “it’s preferable to keep talking,” she concluded. 

Next, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (and another Ploughshares Fund grantee) took the stage to address Iran’s nuclear progress. Albright suggested that two main questions exist: that of Iran’s weaponization, and whether Iran ran a nuclear militarization campaign in the past. He cited a US Institute of Peace project in which he had participated, suggesting that “coming clean on weaponization can really change the whole relationship.” He argued that “it can make questions about how much of the nuclear program still exists much less concerning.”  Albright said that honesty from Iran on their weapons program might allow Iran to become part of the international community and benefit from cooperation, while calming international fears about its plans for nuclear weaponry. However, he admitted that ISIS does not care if the Iranian centrifuge program continues, or even grows, provided that it is confident that any plans for nuclear weaponry have stopped. This is not a view shared by all, particularly by Israel, which thinks that Iran cannot be trusted with any centrifuge program.

In considering Iran’s plans for “unbridled expansion” of centrifuges, Albright said that Iran is faced with “a goal that is way beyond what it can achieve, and certainly what it needs or what is economical.”

But whereas Iran’s goal is misguided, Albright warned that the US does not seem to have one. The long-term vision that is present in North Korea is lacking in Iran, he said. The US “cannot think past the suspension,” which was created as a short-term, stop-gap measure, but which has become an end in and of itself. Without a clear goal for resolution in mind, step-by-step processes will not go very far.

In the end, Albright argued that negotiations are the best way to proceed. Deterrence, he said, would prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons into 2013, buying time for diplomacy. Conversely, a military strike could actually speed Iranian development of nuclear weapons, Albright said. “Effort and energy” should be channeled into negotiations. “That is a substitute for war,” Albright said. “I would rather see a cold war with Iran than a hot war, which is incredibly unpredictable.”

Full audio of the event can be found here.

Photo by Matt Blaze