How the P5+1 should approach Baghdad

The upcoming Baghdad meeting over Iran’s nuclear program has raised legitimate hopes of a peaceful end to a high-stakes conflict, but it also raises risks that the P5+1 powers will misplay their hand – by either accepting a bad deal or letting Tehran buy time and make further progress on the nuclear front.

Here, then, are a few things for the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia) to keep in mind as they approach a potential make-or-break meeting with Iran’s leaders:

Understand how we got here:

If Iran is serious about negotiating an end to this long standoff – still a big “if” – that’s because the steadily tighter global, U.S., and European sanctions are finally having a real impact. It’s not because Tehran had a change of heart and decided that it wanted to negotiate its way out of this conflict.

Tehran must be worried that, with its economy struggling, and with the July 1st start of a European embargo of Iranian oil that will further damage its economy, the regime could soon face enough public anger to threaten its grip on power.

Already, Iran is having trouble selling its oil on world markets, while its banks are increasingly shut out of the global financial system. Iran’s economy is barely growing, its currency is sinking, and inflation is soaring. From Tehran’s vantage point, a deal with the P5+1 that will ease the sanctions while forcing the regime to abandon its nuclear pursuits may be the lesser of very distasteful evils.

“The Iranians are in the position of needing to pursue diplomacy, if anything, even more than they did before,” Dennis Ross, a long-time and savvy U.S. diplomat for the region, told the New York Times. “It’s not like they have any other good news right now.”

If so, then Washington or its allies most certainly should not weaken any existing sanctions or delay any upcoming ones. If it was pressure that brought Iran to the table, it’s pressure that will keep it there.

Beware interim deals:

Optimists suggest the P5+1 could quickly reach an interim deal with Tehran, with each side agreeing to a framework of steps, and then hammer out the details in intense discussions over the coming weeks or months.

That’s fine in theory, but Iranian officials are masters of delay. They’ve entered negotiations before (including three years early in the last decade with British, French, and German leaders), only to walk away after using the period to advance its nuclear program – and then bragging about it afterward.

The more time that global leaders give Tehran to implement an interim agreement, the greater the risk that Tehran will play the same game, using tactical delays to move closer to a fullfledged nuclear capability.

The key, then, is not Iranian agreement to a deal in principle. The key is swift Iranian action on the West’s key demands – that it stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium (which could be upgraded to weapons grade material), ship all of its stockpiles of such uranium out of the country, close the once-secret enrichment facility near Qom that experts believe is becoming increasingly impervious to attack, and allow unfettered international access to all Iranian nuclear sites.

Prepare to walk:

U.S. and other world leaders may want a deal – even desperately so. It would ease tensions in the region, avoid an Israeli or other military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, prevent oil prices from skyrocketing, help the West more easily overcome the mounting hurdles to a healthier global economy and, most of all, avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of an Iran with nuclear weapons.

But, however badly the P5+1’s leaders want a deal, they must be ready to walk away from a bad one – and quickly.

That shouldn’t be hard. These leaders not only can remind Tehran that the July 1st sanctions are just around the corner, they also can point to the prospect of even more sanctions, or worse, not far down the road.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously for even tighter economic sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, with his new coalition government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presumably has more political leverage to strike Iran’s nuclear sites if he grows impatient with the pace of negotiations.

Tehran may be hurting enough to take a deal that would truly defuse the crisis. The P5+1 have no reason to take anything less.

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