It has been seven months since nuclear negotiations with Iran stalled over the issue of Tehran's right to produce fuel. Now, after initial skepticism, Iran is showing signs it might return to the table under a new Russian step-by-step plan.
But with no backing by the rest of the P5+1, would the new approach be a nonstarter?
The last round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries in Istanbul in January collapsed owing to Iran's insistence of having its "right to produce nuclear fuel" recognized.
In an effort to restart negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov forwarded a step-by-step plan during a press conference with Hillary Clinton in Washington on July 13 that calls on Iran to answer questions about its nuclear activities in stages, starting with the easier ones before moving to the hard ones. And, if the answers were considered convincing by the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, Iran would be rewarded with the gradual easing of some existing sanctions or their suspension.
Tehran's initial reaction to the plan was not encouraging.
Alaeddin Borujerdi, the chairman of the Majlis Committee for National Security, described it as "back to square one." President Mahmud Ahmadinejad reacted to it by saying that "Iran has already taken a step to help resolve the dispute over its nuclear program through cooperating with the IAEA, and now it is the major powers' turn."
But after two rounds of talks this week between senior Iranian officials and Russia's Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Tehran, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was more welcoming. "Our Russian friends' proposals could pave the ground for resuming talks on regional and international cooperation, particularly in the field of peaceful nuclear activities," he said on August 16.
Russia did not appear encouraged about the result of the Tehran talks. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said on August 16 that Moscow's efforts had not yet born any fruit and was open about saying that Tehran did not accept the plan. "The [Russian] plan is more realistic and its basis can be characterized in two words -- mutuality and reciprocity," he added.Write Your Quote Here ...
But the same day, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi left Tehran for Moscow on August 16 for a two-day visit to discuss, among other things, the applicability of the step-by-step plan with Russian officials. In a press conference with his Russian counterpart on August 17, Salehi said that the Russian proposal had "good elements" and the plan would be analyzed by "experts" in Tehran.
Dimitry Suslov, deputy research director of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, is not optimistic about the prospects of talks with Iran about the Russian proposal. "Iran will pursue its usual policy whereby it will superficially accept the [step-by-step] proposal, but in the end it will refuse to abide by it. For years Iran has been following this policy and so far this policy suited Iran," he told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.
By the same token, Henry Sokolski, the director of Nonproliferation Education Center in the United States, "There will be much more discussion about beginning discussions about the discussions to discuss the plan.
“I do not think the Iranians are keen on it. I do not think the United States Congress, and arguably the executive, is interested in backing off sanctions right now. And my hunch is that more than a few key European players are not eager to give much right now. So it is hard to see other than the Russians who it is that is keen pushing this plan," Sokolski said.
Nevertheless some Western experts see the plan as having the potential for breaking Iran's nuclear deadlock or at least bring Iran back to the negotiating table, considering that all other measures against Iran have not yielded any result. Others view it as a porous one that does not include any requirement for Iran to halt its enrichment program before the sanctions are lifted -- something that Iran is unlikely to accept.
Moreover, the plan, the experts argue, does not call for increased sanctions for Iran if it fails to cooperate with the IAEA as stipulated in the dialogue-sanctions approach. Instead the step-by-step plan focuses merely on a dialogue-reward approach and in terms of the carrot-and-stick metaphor, it just shortens the stick.
This seems to be the sentiment of Washington toward the step-by-step initiative. Welcoming the Russian efforts to persuade Iran to honor its international obligations, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, speaking on August 15 at a briefing for reporters, said: "Iran's continued disregard for its international nuclear obligations remains a top priority, it's why we work with the Russians and we will be interested to see if the Russians can make some progress with Iran. But that doesn't change our desire to continue to vigorously implement UN Security Council [Resolution] 1929."
The United States, she said, has not changed its "dual-track policy" toward Iran, nor does Washington see the reduction of sanctions being effective. "Our view hasn't changed that you can only ease sanctions when you have actions."
In spite of this official statement, Sokolski says some in the U.S. government would argue that at this juncture when sanctions are bothering Tehran, it makes sense to relax sanctions for greater access to Iran's program or get some convincing answers to the vital questions raised by the IAEA about Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"But I think the problem here is that having created finally a bow wave of allied interested in putting pressure on Iran, making a U-turn on that policy because Russia sees some advantage in doing this, it is got to take a while the very least,” Sokolski said.
“And I think Iran principally has to be interested in making concessions which right now it does not look like Ahmadinejad, who is one of the nominal leaders of Iran, is interested in doing."
Russia’s Aims In The Islamic World
Some experts believe that Russia by proposing the step-by-step plan is pursuing other aims. "Having friendly relations with Iran is part of Russia's effort to pursue an independent policy in the Islamic world,” Alexey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center told Radio Farda.
"Moscow wishes to establish itself as an intermediary on the international level. A quick resolution to Iran's nuclear issue is in the economic interests of Russia. Moscow is concerned about the possibility of a war breaking out near its border over [Iran's] nuclear issue. The sudden warming up of Russia to Iran may be linked to Russia's aim of getting concessions from Washington. Iran's positive stance to the Russian plan seems natural because it is totally isolated and talking to Russia is important to Tehran," Malashenko said.
In late July, talking about the Russian step-by-step plan to the Arabic Service of Russia Today, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said: "Iran has a vital dimension for Russia, and the reverse is also true.... Iran and Russia need each other...[and] we are convinced and certain that Russia will continue its support of Iran's position."
However, this does not seem to be the case. In spite of strategic rivalry and differences that exist between Russia and the United States, Moscow is in full agreement with Washington on some issues, such as the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and concern about Iran's possible access to such weapons. Being aware of Iran's isolation on the international level, Moscow has been using the Iran card when appropriate.
In the past Moscow has shown that when it comes to the crunch, it is not ready to withstand the West for the sake of Iran. So far Russia has agreed to all Security Council Resolutions against Iran and it has also refused to provide Iran a S-300 missile system, which would have been possible even under the current resolutions. Russia does not see Iran as a strategic partner. It is also aware that Iran has no choice but to seek Russian support because of its isolation.
Endorsing Russia's contrasting twin-track policy toward Iran, Andrei Zagorski, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, told Radio Farda: "On the one hand, Moscow wants to have friendly relations with Iran. On the other hand, it cannot accept Iran being equipped with nuclear weapons. However, Iranian officials know that Russia in the past conceded to punishments [via the UN Security Council] against Iran and it may take the same [approach] again."
Anna Raiskaya of Radio Farda contributed to this report