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Il negoziato sul nucleare iraniano

21/03/2013, Rome

Following the resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany), IAI and the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) organized a joint event in the IAI library to discuss the issue. Experts from ECFR included Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, PhD candidate at King’s College in London, and Lapo Pistelli, a former (and prospective) member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Italy’s House of Deputies. IAI was represented by Riccardo Alcaro, Senior Fellow in the Institute’s Transatlantic Programme, who also acted as chairperson.

Bassiri Tabrizi analysed expectations and challenges in the aftermath of the P5+1-Iran talks in February 2013, the first contact after an 8 month impasse. She explored Iran’s viewpoint vis-à-vis the P5+1’s demands to severely restrict uranium enrichment activities and greatly expand the authority of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. She pointed to the West’s apparent unwillingness to lift or even relax the sanctions regime as one of the main reasons for the Iranian leadership’s scepticism about the ability and political will of the West (the US in particular) to negotiate on the basis of reciprocity.

Alcaro maintained that the negotiations at this stage are aimed more at freezing than at resolving the crisis. No party is willing to make significant concessions. Obama is constrained by domestic factors (above all Congress) that are adverse to a compromise with the Iranian regime. Iran has little advantage in taking hazardous steps for fear of engendering a new round of sanctions or worse, so it is unlikely to break negotiation. Russia and China, while worried about Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, also want the country to remain closed to US influence. Europe has abdicated from any pro-active role. Even Israel does not perceive the status quo as a real menace to its regional strategic supremacy. The Arab Gulf states are as wary of a nuclear-armed Iran as they are distrustful of a hypothetical US-Iran rapprochement following a compromise on the nuclear dossier, as Iran would then be perceived as a natural ally of the US. Finally, no-one is ready to face the consequences of a military strike against Iran. Thus, Alcaro concluded, maintaining the status quo emerges, by default, as the only objective that all parties find acceptable. Nevertheless, while this option may buy time, it is not sustainable in the long run as the status quo is based on a precarious balance.

Lapo Pistelli argued that the main issue is the nature of Iran’s leadership more than the use of nuclear knowhow. In his opinion, the regime is a rational actor, therefore susceptible to being influenced by cost-opportunity calculations. From this perspective, the nuclear programme is more a bargaining chip for obtaining guarantees for national (and regime) security than an end in itself. Pistelli advocated a strategy for involving Iran as a key stakeholder in a number of regional issues, namely how to pull back from Iraq, ensure transition in Syria, and deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The contributions were followed by an interesting discussion. The issue of Israel’s position and its fear of possible US disengagement from the region was raised. Others highlighted the need for the P5+1 group to work out a long-term strategy, as negotiations seem to be dragging on without any kind of vision of the end goal or a roadmap to reach it. The predominance of the Iranian dossier on the US and European agendas and ‘containment’ strategies were also discussed, as was the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme, whose over-reliance on uranium enrichment is atypical, as most nuclear proliferators have historically based their weapons programmes on the production of plutonium.