BICOM Senior Associate Fellow Brig. Gen (ret.) Michael Herzog briefed journalists on 24 May on the talks underway in Baghdad between the P5+1 powers (US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) and Iran. Michael Herzog is the author of the BICOM Expert View paper, Back from the Threshold: The last chance for diplomacy to stop Iran. The following is a report on his comments.
The positions taken in the Baghdad talks
The talks are still underway so it is too soon to know the outcome, but what we are hearing so far indicates some serious differences between Iran and the P5+1. The main difference of opinion is over what Iran should get in return for accepting the demands of the P5+1 to ship out current stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium, to cease enrichment to 20% at the Fordow enrichment site, and to close the Fordow enrichment site.
It appears that the P5+1 are saying that sanctions will not be lifted in return for this, but that no new sanctions will be imposed, including planned sanctions on insurance and reinsurance, which is vital for Iran’s global oil trade. In addition the Western powers may also make some gestures to Iran such as offering spare parts for civilian aircraft, or upgrading existing civilian nuclear sites like the Bushehr reactor and the aging Tehran Research Reactor. Iran, on the other hand, wants to see the lifting of sanctions in return for possible concessions on the 20% enriched uranium. Given this gap it would be surprising to see an agreement in this round that leads to the shipping out of uranium or lifting of sanctions.
The Israeli position
Everyone you talk to in the Israeli government is extremely sceptical about the whole process. They believe that Iran is only interested in biding time and driving a wedge between the P5+1 negotiating parties, in particular between Russia and China, who are more inclined to make concession to Iran, and the US and European powers, who are pursuing a tougher line.
There were some difference between the position presented by Defence Minister Ehud Barak a few weeks ago and the public line taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Barak said that Iran might be allowed to enrich to 3.5%, and keep a small stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium (less than that required for one bomb). This was on condition that Iran decommissioned the Fordow enrichment site, stopped enrichment o 20%, shipped out all its 20% enriched uranium, and came clean on all the open files it has with the IAEA about research into nuclear weapons production.
However, right now these differences are not that relevant because it seems unlikely that Iran will accept even the position that Barak suggested. In any case, in recent weeks Barak has not repeated his earlier proposal and has maintained the same line as Netanyahu.
Israelis are not surprised by the lack of progress so far in the talks. What they fear is a gradual erosion of the P5+1 position. Iran typically gives sufficient gestures to keep the talks going but insufficient to meet international demands. This creates a dilemma for the P5+1 negotiators, about whether to feed the talks with gestures in terms of easing sanctions. The Israeli concern is that the P5+1 powers will be dragged from one meeting to another without any result.
The possibility of an Israeli strike
It is fair to assume that Israel will give some time for diplomacy and sanctions, as Netanyahu promised to President Obama in Washington in March. But as both Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have said, “It’s not a matter of days or weeks, but also not of years”, i.e. it is a matter of months before Israel will be forced to decide about military action.
Barak has said publicly in recent days that while Israel is following the talks closely it is keeping all options on the table. If it transpires that Iran is just buying time, there is no telling what Israel will do.
If a deal were reached to ship out 20% enriched uranium and to stop the enrichment to 20%, this would make Israel’s decision about military action even harder to make, though it would still not be impossible that Israel would decide to use military force.