Sanctions against Iran were imposed with the aim of bringing Tehran to the negotiating table. That they have on some occasions, but have they helped broker an actual agreement? Unfortunately, the sides today are as far apart as they have ever been, and continued negotiations without progress will at best maintain the status quo, at worst – lead to devastating consequences.
It took nine months of pre-negotiation shuffle but soon Iran and a consortium of negotiators comprising the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K., France, and Germany (also known as E3+3 or more commonly referred to in the U.S. as the P5+1) will gather in Kazakhstan for a new round of talks. Hopes for a breakthrough at the negotiations, slated to begin on February 26, are low as none has been achieved in the past. So what is needed to save the talks from failure this time around? There is no blueprint, no specific course of action, much less a magic solution weary participants would be able to pursue. Yet there might be possibilities to consider.
First, the E3+3 should put the option of sanctions relief on the table. At the moment there are two types of sanctions imposed against Iran by the U.S. and the E.U.: on the one hand, there are targeted sanctions aimed at Iran’s government; on the other – there are general sanctions affecting Iran’s population at large. The general sanctions are known to have mixed effects: because of them ordinary Iranians often suffer in view of the restrictions such sanctions impose on the availability of crucial goods, such as live-saving medications. The Iranian upper class, at the same time, uses these restrictions to enrich itself by profiteering from soaring prices for imported goods on the shadow market.
If sanctions were restructured so as to minimize their humanitarian impact, this could be a huge step in the right direction, at least for the sake of easing human suffering. For example, if small enterprises were able to use the SWIFT payment system for limited foreign transactions, this would allow Iranians to pay for medications they need. It could also facilitate the import of raw ingredients needed for the local manufacture of drugs, for instance cancer-treating drugs.
“[T]he most important objective the sides should pursue in Kazakhstan is the establishment of some mutual trust…” – Tarja Cronberg, member, European Parliament
Second, as former IAEA director Hans Blix has repeatedly pointed out, Iran already has a legitimate right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. That right has to be recognized by the West for any agreement with Iran to be reached. For its part, Tehran should commit itself to dispelling the justified concerns of the international community regarding the secrecy and non-transparency of its nuclear program. This should include full cooperation with the IAEA.
Third, there is a dire need for mutual trust. Thus far, the West has made reaching an agreement a precondition for the lifting of any sanctions. Iran, on the other hand, sees sanction relief as a step towards a possible agreement.
Therefore, the most important objective the sides should pursue in Kazakhstan is the establishment of some mutual trust, with the West, for once, giving Iran the benefit of the doubt that its nuclear program might in fact be for civilian purposes, and with Iran opening its facilities for full inspections.
The window of opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough in Kazakhstan is indeed narrow as many rounds of negotiations have ended in nothing but an impasse. That is why this time around a new approach is not only needed, but is essential. The alternative is, at best, continued deadlock, at worst – a greater likelihood for a military showdown at immense human cost. It’s high time for a new approach.
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Dr. Tarja Cronberg is a member of the European Parliament. Previously, she has been Finland's minister of labor, a member of the Finnish Parliament and chair of the Green League Party. In her political work, she has specialized in defense and security matters, lately focusing on nuclear disarmament. Currently, she is chair of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with Iran.