Ahmadinejad’s call for talks: olive branch or delay tactic?

Why it’s hard to take Tehran’s offer of negotiations seriously
FILE - In this April 8, 2008 file photo provided by the Iranian President’s Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran. Iran has begun uranium enrichment at a new underground site well protected from possible airstrikes, a leading hardline newspaper reported Sunday, Jan. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Iranian President’s Office, File) NO SALES

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came forward Thursday to announce his support for renewed negotiations with the international community over his country’s uranium enrichment program. If you’re reading this, you’re likely aware that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program—which it insists is for energy and medical isotopes, not warheads—has been getting hotter. On Monday, the 27 members of the European Union announced an oil embargo against Iran, effectively putting 18 per cent of the country’s oil exports (roughly 450,000 barrels per day) in jeopardy. The U.S., meanwhile, is pressuring oil companies in India, Japan, China and South Korea to stop dealing with Iran. And Canada has banned any economic activity with Iran’s central bank, as well as any new investment in its oil and gas industry.

Israel, meanwhile, has held air raid drills to prepare for Iranian missile strikes, while at the same time refusing to preclude the possibility of launching a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear enrichment sites. And of course, as Michael Petrou recently wrote in this magazine, violent attacks and assassinations have been carried out against nuclear scientists in Iran, possibly with the involvement of Israel’s infamous Mossad intelligence agency and/or the CIA.

In response to all this, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the vital sea lane of the Persion Gulf that sees 35 per cent of the world’s annual oil tanker traffic (one government official said this week that it would “definitely” close the strait).

But now that Ahmadinejad says he wants to talk it out with the international community, the question becomes: does Tehran sincerely want compromise with the West, or is it simply trying to buy time so that it can further its enrichment program and gain the clout that comes with a nuclear weapons capability?

It’s hard to imagine Iran finally accepting the demands of America and its allies by scaling back its nuclear program and offering concrete assurances that what’s left is solely for peaceful purposes.

For starters, we’ve seen this before. Iran has made a show of cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency by allowing investigators to visit nuclear enrichment sites and holding discussions with the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany). But those talks have never amounted to anything. And none have been held since January 2011, when a meeting between Iran and the P5+1 ended without consequence after Iran rejected a nuclear swap deal that would see its nuclear material enriched to 20 per cent at locations outside the country. The talks failed and the nuclear program kept on trucking.

Ahmadinejad’s call for negotiations could also be a desperate attempt to stop sanctions from escalating any further. After all, they’re not insignificant. According to Mark Dubowitz of the Iran Energy Project at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies in Washington, D.C., the current sanctions against Iran could result in a net loss of US$20 billion in oil revenues per year for the Islamic Republic. That’s a big chunk, considering Iran put up $100 billion in oil export profits last year. By calling for a new round of talks, the increasing international agreement on the necessity for action against Iran could lose ground. And the case made by the U.S. for foreign oil companies to stop dealing with Iran may be tougher to make—China, for that matter, has already spoken out against the EU oil embargo.

But most of all, Iran has too much to gain by pursuing membership in the club of atomic nations, even in the face of possible military action from Israel or the United States. Nuclear weapons would immediately tip the regional balance of power in Iran’s direction, allowing it to operate with more foreign policy gumption. Moreover, they would increase Iran’s domestic security by deterring foreign powers—fellow nuclear armed countries like Israel and the U.S.—from launching attacks.