Iran recruits Syrian crisis as bargaining chip in nuclear talks

Yasser Seddiq, Monday 25 Feb 2013

Upcoming negotiations between global powers and Iran in Kazakhstan may feature discussion of Bahrain and Syria, if Iran gets its way

Saeed Jalili
Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili looks on during a meeting with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Almaty February 25, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

One day before the beginning of nuclear negotiations between leading global powers and Iran in Kazakhstan, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that “enemy plots to put pressure on Iranian economy are under control” and called for the Iranian nation to protect their solidarity in the face of “enemy pressures and divisive plots.”

Addressing his speech to western powers, Ahmadinejad said that “they should know that the Iranian economy is one of the biggest ones in the world and the Iranian nation is incomparable in resisting foreign pressures in defence of its rights," IRNA news agency reported.

In fact, many observers say that the Islamic Republic is tottering under the stifling economic sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union over Iran's nuclear efforts since 2006.

Sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, for example, have cut revenues in half over the past year and propelled the fall of the rial. The latest round of sanctions is making it even more difficult for Iran to access international oil revenue.

Iran's team of negotiators, headed by secretary of the country's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Sunday evening, IRNA, Iran’s semi-official news agency, reported.

The Iranian team of negotiators are scheduled to meet with P5+1 representatives, including Russia, China, US, France, UK and Germany on Tuesday.
The P5+1 team of negotiators is being headed by the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Iran has held three round of talks with the P5+1 in Geneva, two rounds in Istanbul and one round of talks in both Baghdad and Moscow in the past. So far all attempts to reach agreement about the Iranian nuclear programme, which Tehran says is for civilian purposes only, have ended without results.

Western diplomats have said that Iran will be presented with an offer with significant new elements, involving an easing of sanctions on Iran's gold and precious metals trading in exchange for the closure of a major uranium enrichment plant, in a bid to persuade Iranian negotiators and end a deadlock that has lasted almost unchanged since 2002.

Bahrain, Syria also on the agenda

Mohamed Abbas Nagi, an expert on Iranian affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online that these negotiations are one of the most significant round of talks because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has recently reported that Iran is planning to use an ostensibly civilian facility to test fuel for a reactor that can yield plutonium, and has announced it has selected 16 locations as suitable for new nuclear power plants it intends to build to boost its energy production over the next 15 years.

It coincides with the latest announcement that Iran has begun installing a new generation of centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment facility.

More unexpected was the Iranian demand to put the Syrian revolution and Bahrain protests on the agenda of the talks in Kazakhstan. The request in itself has angered the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The head of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Abdellatif Zayani, announced its "total rejection" of the Iranian proposition, calling it "a provocation" and "interference in the internal affairs of Arab states."

"Iran mostly tries to put forth non-nuclear issues at conferences and meetings mainly dedicated to its controversial nuclear programme. The reason is crystal clear; to exhaust western negotiators with time-consuming and futile marathon talks," Nagi told Ahram Online.

"From my point of view, the West will never agree to the inclusion of the Syrian crisis and unrest in Bahrain. The West rejected such proposals at the Baghdad conference in May 2012," commented Nagi.

If global powers agree to include non-nuclear issues in the talks, it would be an expression of recognition by the international community of Iran's role as a key regional player that has leverage in the many Middle Eastern crises; the crisis in Syria and Bahrain, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and also Turkish-related issues.

Nagi believes that the talks will most probably bring nothing new, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all major decisions in Iran, has dismissed a one-on-one dialogue with the US saying that American proposals for direct talks with Iran are pointless while Washington is "holding a gun" to the country through economic sanctions.

"Iran wants to send a message to western negotiators that Tehran intends to find a solution to its stalemate with the West, and that the door is open, in a bid to avoid further economic sanctions or a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Another goal is not to abide by new obligations," Nagi added.

Iran faces other regional obstacles. Its flagrant support of the brutal regime in Syria is a weak point, as is its stagnant relationship with Egypt, despite the recent visit by Ahmadinejad to Cairo.

Iran has also seen the deterioration of its relationship with Gulf monarchies over the situation in Bahrain, its occupation of the UAE islands, and controversy over its role in influencing protests by Shiites in eastern Saudi Arabia.

In addition to this, it faces tense relationships with Turkey and an ongoing war of rhetoric with Israel.

Nonetheless, Nagi argues, there are strong indications that Iranians are not ready to make concessions in this round of negotiations. Instead they may delay in the hope of eliciting greater concessions.

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