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Can We Trust the Iranians to Negotiate in Good Faith? Does It Matter?

Can We Trust the Iranians to Negotiate in Good Faith? Does It Matter?

Nuclear negotiations with Iran having been punted forward six weeks to a day in May, a positive development in principle, attention is focusing on whether Iran can be trusted at all and on who’s really in charge. The consensus of close observers seems to be that the country’s eminence grise Ayatollah Ali Khameini has tightened the reins, with Ahmadinejad sharply weakened as economic sanctions are starting to bite hard. It’s recognized on the one hand that Khameini has declared nuclear weapons absolutely inconsistent with Islam. On the other hand, it’s also recognized that Shiite Islam explicitly acknowledges the right of political leaders to lie when necessary in self-defense.

Former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei expressed dismay in his book last year that when Iranian nuclear negotiators were caught out in misrepresentations, they treated the matter lightly, as if it were of no import.

So does it make sense to attempt negotiations at all with people who admit their word may be of no real value? Arms Control Association Greg Thielmann has been arguing that it would be best to take Iranian leaders at their word, in hopes they may be boxed into delivering on commitments however insincerely made, while at the same time trying to make “nuclear breakout” as unappealing an option as possible. (His thoughts on the second point are contained in a recent ACA threat assessment brief.)

I agree, though the difficulties are not to be underestimated. Elements of radical uncertainty are evident even in statements from those who have been critical of Iran’s regime and yet also support negotiations. Nobelist Shirin Ebadi, who has been living in exile, is quoted in yesterday’s New York Times as opposing economic sanctions because they are so punishing of innocent Iranians. And yet she worries that Iran’s leaders may be just playing for time in the current round of negotiations, a concern that has dogged efforts to talk since 2003.

Seyed Hossain Mossavian, a former top nuclear negotiator for Iran now  working quietly at Princeton University, likewise has opposed sanctions as counter-productive. He has suggested, as ACA’s Peter Crail noted in an ACA issue brief, that Iran might be talked into enriching uranium only to the extent it is needed to satisfy reactor fuel needs. “Such a commitment would entail a de facto suspension because of Iran’s lack of near-term domestic fuel needs, but it would provide Iran with a way to rationalize such a halt without appearing to capitulate entirely,” Crail observed. But Mousavian also seemed to suggest, at the end of long interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last fall, that a comprehensive solution to the Iranian situation may be impossible without the question of Israel’s nuclear arsenal being addressed.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in the upcoming talks is a small agreement or series of small agreements that keep the door open for a wider and more ambitious approach to regional issues. Astonishingly, according to an opinion poll cited in a column that appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times several months ago, nearly two-thirds of Israelis would support the idea of a Middle East nuclear free zone if that kept Iran non-nuclear–and they expressed that opinion even when told explicitly that this would mean Israel’s giving up its nuclear arsenal.






William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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