BICOM Senior Associate Fellow Brig. Gen (ret.) Michael Herzog briefed journalists on 19 June on the talks in Moscow 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 of the two sides in the talks
This was a tough round of talks, with the sides taking sharply conflicting positions. The P5+1 repeated its written proposal from the previous round of talks in Baghdad that Iran should stop enrichment to 20 per cent, ship out all 20 per cent enriched uranium and close the Fordow enrichment facility. Iran delivered a detailed response which essentially rejected the proposal and issued two demands as conditions for discussing the P5+1 proposal: that the international community recognise its right to ‘civilian enrichment’, implicitly three and a half per cent, and that sanctions be lifted. It is very difficult for the P5+1 parties to accept Iran’s right to enrichment even up to three and a half per cent ahead of a deal, because this is contrary to six UNSC resolutions which require Iran to cease enrichment completely.
Though Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had implied ahead of the talks a willingness to stop 20 per cent enrichment, in the talks themselves Iran demanded to know first if the sanctions would be lifted and if its right to continued civilian enrichment is agreed upon.
We had heard threats from both sides that this could be the last round, but in reality both sides have an interest in keeping talking, even if only at a technical level, and not declaring the death of diplomacy, especially given the looming threat of an Israeli military strike.
Israel’s position on the talks
Israel is concerned about a potential erosion of the P5+1 position, which it already considers to be not tough enough. There is a constant effort by the US and European powers to keep Israel informed. A delegation including senior US official visited Israel to brief Israeli leaders after last round in Baghdad and a similar delegation is expected to visit Israel again this week.
The reaction from Israel to the outcome of the Moscow round is expected to highlight the fact that the parties are unable to continue high level discussions because of the extent of their differences. Clearly the differences cannot be addressed at the technical level but only in high-level political talks. Israel will interpret the outcome as showing that talks are failing and will demand that the international community set a time frame so that discussions do not go on indefinitely without substance.
Israelis are distrustful of a process which drags on without substantive progress. Ahead and after the last two rounds, Israelis were assured that this may be the last round and the international community would not allow Iran to drag the talks on. However, we repeatedly find ourselves in situation with the talks making no progress but a continuation of the process being announced.
What Israelis want is clarity over whether there is real progress or not. A continuation of diplomacy without progress simply gives more time for Iran to enrich uranium and immunise their capabilities from an Israeli military strike. Furthermore, whilst talks are continuing the Israeli decision over whether or not to take military actions is even harder.
That said, relegation of the talks to technical level does not necessarily mean that the talks have collapsed completely. It cannot be ruled out that the Iranians, at the last moment, will make concessions under the pressure of sanctions.
Israel’s military timeline
An important consideration for Israel in terms of timing is that Iran is approaching what Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak calls the ‘zone of immunity’, which is the point at which its capacity to build nuclear weapons will be protected from Israeli military action.
The Israeli security establishment believes it still has the option of a military strike, though there are professional debates within the security establishment about how long that window of opportunity remains open.
Does Israel have to make a decision in the next few months, as indicated by the political leadership, or does it have more time and can ‘synchronise clocks’ with the US. The Americans give a longer assessment of the window of opportunity for a military option (based on their greater military capability) and they assess that the window extends into next year. The debate in Israel also includes a strategic dimension, about the potential consequences of an Israeli strike. This is also a public debate in Israel, because we are talking about a very difficult decision for Israel leaders.
The issue of the presidential elections in the US is also a factor in Israeli calculations. Israelis know where they are with the Americans at present but do not know where they will be in November. Even if Romney is elected it does not mean he will strike immediately. It will take him many months to appoint people, familiarise himself with the issues and take decisions, with a backdrop of huge economic challenges and other issues on his agenda.
Iran’s decision making
Differences of opinion can be detected within the Iranian leadership. We have seen that they do not all think and talk the same, after the experience of the failed fuel swap deal (in 2009) where differences were seen between Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and others. Ultimately the Supreme Leader calls the shots but he is under some pressure from within the system, so some incoherence can be detected. Ahmadinejad sent signals about willingness to stop enrichment to 20 per cent ahead of this round of talks, but the Iranian negotiators in the talks put major conditions on this position.