Have negotiations with Iran hit a dead end? President Obama has made it clear the discussions could not go on indefinitely, but it is the Supreme Leader in Iran who may hold the next card.
PARIS - The negotiations on Iran's nuclear program were instigated by the Obama administration, which wanted to ward off the twin election-year threats of an Israeli military intervention and an oil price hike.
Is this the end, are the negotiations dead? More like in a coma.
On Tuesday, after two long days of discussions in Moscow, the representatives of the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) and the Iranian emissary, Saïd Jalili, weren't able to reach a consensus.
France promptly published a statement clearly aimed at dashing any Iranian hopes that the new Socialist government would soften the vigorous stance displayed by former President Sarkozy. "Pressure must be increased on Iran … Sanctions will continue to toughen as long as Iran refuses to seriously negotiate," read the statement from Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
This was the third round of negotiations since April, in a context where Iran was supposed to be more accommodating as it started to feel the devastating effects of the embargo on its oil exports and of its exclusion from the international financial system, which will be fully implemented at the end of June.
European representative Catherine Ashton, who speaks for the P5+1, blamed the diplomatic dead end on Iran, which she said turned out not to be committed to building trust. Saïd Jalili answered with leitmotivs: the UN resolutions targeting his country are illegal, and Iran's right to enrich uranium should be recognized.
The P5+1 rejected all of these assertions, reminding Iran that it must first be fully transparent about its nuclear program, which was far from being the case because of the lack of cooperation with international inspectors. In the end, Iran didn't yield a single thing on its enrichment of uranium at 20%, asking as a prerequisite that international sanctions be lifted. The maximalist position seemed to be prevailing.
Everybody needs a way out
But beyond this persisting clash, it is clear that no one wants to give up. It was agreed in Moscow that discussions would continue but at a lower level: in Istanbul they will continue between "experts', in other words, between diplomats unauthorized to negotiate on actual content and only able to clarify current positions.
The danger for Obama, who is acting under the skeptical gaze of Israeli officials and Congressional Republicans, is to expose himself to criticism along the lines of "while you're wasting so much time talking, Iranian centrifuges continue to turn." The question of the limits for discussion was settled when Obama announced this spring that they could not go on indefinitely.
It is also in the interests of all parties concerned to explore any intermediate solutions. The Americans and Europeans want to limit the risk of a dangerous crisis, the Russians and the Chinese don't believe in the efficiency of sanctions, and the Iranians want to reduce the economic pressure they're facing.
The failure of the Moscow talks can be seen as a setback for Russian diplomacy, which had intensified its mediation efforts and even inspired the idea of "step-by-step and reciprocal" negotiations with concessions each side could make. But the attitude of Iranian emissary Saïd Jalili convinced his counterparts that he had no wiggle room from the hard line of Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei's .
Read more from Le Monde in French.
Photo - Dave Highbury