The latest round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the so-called “5+1” group (the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China – plus Germany) has now begun. Following more than a year of deadlock, after negotiations in January 2011 led nowhere, this dialogue is for many the last chance to find a peaceful solution to a nearly decade-long conflict (in which I participated closely from 2006 to 2009 as the West’s main negotiator with Iran).
The objective of the talks, chaired by the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is still to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment and to comply with Security Council resolutions and its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But several factors heighten the current negotiations’ strategic importance.
First, domestic economic and political conditions in Iran have changed markedly since the last round of talks. International pressure has mounted since the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last November that the country’s nuclear program was advancing towards the production of nuclear arms, rather than electricity or medical isotopes, with new sanctions imposed on Iranian oil exports and on transactions with the Central Bank of Iran.
Although rising global energy prices have given Iran some respite in recent months, the sanctions have made themselves felt more than ever among Iranian consumers. The rial has lost 40% of its value since October (making imports less affordable), and financial transactions have become much more expensive and difficult for the government, businesses, and households alike.
Moreover, Iran’s leadership is fragmented and weak. Relations between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continue to deteriorate, while tensions are growing within the Revolutionary Guard. It remains to be seen what impact these political developments will have on the negotiations.
Second, Iran’s regional standing has been shaken by the wave of Arab revolts, especially in Syria – a decisive country, given its strategic relations with both Iran and Russia. Indeed, Syria is Iran’s main ally in the Middle East, as well as being the only country outside of the former Soviet Union in which Russia has a military base. Russia’s need to reconcile its role in these negotiations with its interests in Syria makes an already-complicated dialogue more difficult.