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Analysis by Trita Parsi

Ayatollah Khamenei, Not Iran's President In Control, And Ready To "Haggle"

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- After months of bickering over arbitrary deadlines, the Iranian government delivered its long-awaited response to the P5+1 package punctually on the eve of its self-imposed deadline Tuesday.

As expected, the sticking point remains the precondition attached to the offer: the demand that Iran suspend its enrichment activities before any talks take place. In spite of Iran's rejection of this demand -- which it considers capitulation -- a small window exists to come to an understanding on suspension before the Aug. 31 deadline of the Security Council.

Enrichment is the prize of the negotiations and the Iranians clearly do not want to give it up even before the talks take place. They did so when they signed the Paris Agreement in November 2003 and they have sorely regretted it ever since. For the new Iranian negotiating team, headed by Iran's National Security Council Advisor Ali Larijani, getting the West to the negotiating table without offering suspension of enrichment is the litmus test of its negotiating tactics.

Much like today, the talks preceding the Paris agreement dealt with the modalities of the enrichment suspension. The Iranians wanted to link their voluntary suspension to progress in the negotiations. The idea was to ensure that the suspension would not become an open-ended commitment that would be hostage to the negotiations.

Europe, however, insisted on linking the suspension to the continuation of the negotiations rather than to their progress. Since Europe's key objective was to put a stop to Iran's enrichment program, the mere existence of talks would ensure the attainment of that goal -- even if no progress was made in the talks themselves.

Tehran eventually caved in, and sure enough, little progress was made in the talks. In August 2005, the Iranians rejected a European incentive package that lacked firm commitments and a serious security dimension. The talks broke down and having been freed from the Paris Agreement, the Iranians aggressively pushed forward with their program to make up lost time. Tehran declared itself open to talks with the West, but under no conditions would it agree to suspend its program.

Tehran's tough talk did not impress the George W. Bush administration. By the time the Bush White House finally decided to join the talks -- after a three-year absence -- it put enrichment suspension as its precondition.

Many analysts viewed the precondition as a non-starter, and both Tehran and Brussels were left guessing whether Washington wanted its offer to be accepted or rejected. Could the U.S., through the carrot of bringing the Bush administration itself to the table, compel Iran to unlearn the lesson from Paris, or was the aim to win Iran's rejection so that a confrontational approach towards Iran would appear more legitimate?

Whatever Washington's intentions, the Iranians have -- as expected -- rejected a categorical and open-ended suspension. Instead, their response offers talks on the scope and length of the suspension, as well as guarantees that Iran would not quit the non-proliferation treaty.

But in the view of Washington and Brussels, there is little wiggle room in UN Security Council Resolution 1696, which demands that Iran by Aug. 31 "suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)."

As a result, Iran's only option is to convince the Europeans to begin negotiations on the modalities of an enrichment suspension before Aug. 31, with the hope that progress in those talks will compel Brussels to turn a blind eye to the Security Council deadline and to achieve suspension by accepting Iran's "new formula."

Clearly, Europe is tempted. A rejection of the Iranian counter-offer will make the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions resolutions a reality. Yet the Europeans privately admit that sanctions will likely only pave the way for the next phase in the conflict -- the military one.

The sanctions that realistically can be imposed will be toothless. The ones that can inflict pain on Iran are just as costly -- if not more so -- to the Europeans themselves whose publics would be loathe to endure economic hardship for the sake of depriving Iran of nuclear technology.

Washington, however, seems not in the mood to explore any other formulas than its own ultimatums and may pressure the Europeans to shy away from any new negotiations with Iran.

In spite of the risk for war, mistrust towards Tehran, the importance attached to rebuilding trans-Atlantic relations as well as the need to avoid a repeat of the internal divisions caused by the Iraq war may all serve to compel Europe to choose the path of sanctions -- and possibly war -- rather than to negotiate with Iran about suspension.

Here, the Iranians have not helped themselves. By responding to the P5+1 package on Aug. 22, only nine days before the Security Council's enrichment deadline, little time has been granted to Europe to weigh its options while ample opportunity has been given to hardliners in Washington and elsewhere to close this small window.

The P5+1 comprises the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, France, Russia, China and the U.S. -- and Germany.

Dr. Trita Parsi is the author of "Treacherous Triangle -- The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States" (Yale University Press, 2007

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Albion Monitor   August 25, 2006   (

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