The Middle East Channel

Iran nuclear negotiations remain the best path forward

Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany resume again this weekend, with Tehran giving hints that it may take a more constructive attitude to negotiations than it did during the previous round in 2011. Iranian nuclear officials have suggested that Iran might curtail its 20 percent uranium enrichment program, which would meet almost halfway the expected demands of the United States and its so-called P5+1 negotiating partners.

The United States and its allies reportedly plan to demand the immediate cessation of uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and a closure of the hardened Fordow enrichment plant, possibly in exchange for promises of no further sanctions. If the United States and its international partners are able to achieve these objectives, they will significantly slow Iran's progress toward having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, score a victory for the two-track policy of diplomacy and economic pressure, and provide a template for more fully resolving outstanding issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program in future talks.

Will that happen? Predicting the future is a fool's game, but it's important to recognize that the United States and its partners are going into talks with Iran this weekend in a position of strength that would have been hard to imagine four short years ago. This is in large part thanks to the Obama administration's hard diplomatic work rebuilding alliances and, importantly, its demonstrated willingness to engage in good faith with the Iranian regime.

Far from being a naïve move, as some have charged, President Obama's outreach to Iran at the outset of his administration served an important purpose. By revealing Iran as the recalcitrant party, his administration has been able to forge a far stronger and more enduring international coalition to pressure Iran. Instead of "validating the mullahs," as one critic alleged, Obama's engagement effort has in fact further isolated them.

Some observers argue that such a deal will not be enough, suggesting that Iran must agree to effectively dismantle its entire nuclear program as the result of any deal. Anything less means the "unprecedented leverage" now at American disposal will have been "squandered."

But rather than repeating the mistakes of the recent past, overplaying our hand, demanding complete Iranian capitulation, and achieving nothing, the U.S. and its partners should maintain their advantage by offering Iran an opportunity to demonstrate its own good faith with a set of steps that it can plausibly present as a win. While the long-term goal remains an Iranian nuclear program fully under the monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the near-term goal should be to continue to lengthen Iran's nuclear timeline while trying to build a combination of carrot and sticks to achieve the more comprehensive deal in the future. This isn't "squandering" leverage; it's making sure the United States and its partners preserve the significant leverage they now have to secure immediate and long-term objectives.

There have been other recent indications that Iran's leaders could be in a more accommodating mood. In February, in what could be seen as an attempt to allay international concerns over Iran's possible desire for weaponization of its enriched uranium, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that having nuclear weapons "is a sin as well as useless, harmful and dangerous." On March 8, Khamenei praised President Obama's remarks downplaying the talk of war, declaring a "window of opportunity" for diplomacy with Iran. And in a recent interview with CNN, published on March 16, Mohammad Javad Larijani, a close adviser to Khamenei, disavowed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's notorious remark that Israel would be "wiped off the map," saying that Ahmadinejad's comment was "definitely not" meant in a military sense and that such a move was not "a policy of Iran."

In a recently published interview, former Iranian president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was recently re-appointed by Khamenei as head of Iran's Expediency Council, clarified a 1999 statement about Israel's vulnerability in a nuclear-armed Middle East, saying it was mistakenly interpreted as a threat against Israel. "Having nuclear weapons is not even in Israel's interest," Rafsanjani explained. "We deeply believe that nuclear weapons must not exist, and this has been part of our policy."

While we should be careful about taking at face value these signals out of Tehran, taken together they may represent an effort by key Iranian leaders to address issues of concern to P5+1 negotiators -- Iran's potential efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, and the threat that such a weapon could pose to other countries in the region, particularly Israel.

We should not, of course, be in the practice of rewarding countries for simply ceasing to threaten other countries with destruction. But we should recognize that for a regime that thrives on defiance and hostility toward the United States and Israel, these recent statements out of Iran represent an attempt to lower the temperature.

President Obama's reported response to Khamenei -- we appreciate your statement against nuclear weapons, now show us you're serious -- is appropriate. The United States and its partners have, through skillful and painstaking diplomacy, generated considerable leverage over Iran. Rather than squandering this leverage by simply pushing Iran to surrender and most likely achieving nothing, they should work to maintain the stock of leverage while offering Iran opportunities to make good on its own recent statements.

An all-or-nothing approach to the Iranian nuclear question is unlikely to yield positive results for the United States and its partners. Sacrificing progress on areas of great concern in pursuit of maximalist goals is an irrational approach for the United States to take.

Saying yes to a deal that brings an IAEA-certified halt to Iran's 20 percent enrichment and halts progress at Fordow in exchange for holding off further sanctions does not foreclose further scrutiny of Iran's nuclear program or let Tehran off the hook. On the contrary, it has the potential to strengthen those efforts by allowing Iran to prove its seriousness. And it allows the international community to show the paranoid regime in Tehran that it will live up to its commitments if Iran lives up to its own. The likelihood of immediate major breakthroughs in this weekend's talks is low, but success would be the start of a gradual, step-by-step process of negotiations that achieves U.S. goals.

Matthew Duss is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, DC.

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Hunger, heroism, and hope in Bahrain

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist who was sentenced to life imprisonment in a military court, is now in a critical stage of a hunger strike which has gone on for 64 days. Foreign doctors who have been to see him have said he is at serious risk of death if he continues. The Bahraini government has rejected increasing international pressure to release him, and has limited outside access. His plight has begun to draw attention to the failure of reform in Bahrain, including an unusual White House statement yesterday. If he dies, it could mark a significant breaking point for the regime's efforts to rehabilitate its tarnished reputation -- and could accelerate the disturbing trend toward militant radicalization in the opposition.

Hunger striking has become a distinctive phenomenon in the current round of Arab protest movements. It has a long history, marking many of the major emancipatory struggles throughout the world from British suffragettes to Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. It has recently emerged as a particularly important form of protest against tyrannical states. From Palestine, to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, prisoners of conscience have used the last thing they control -- their bodies -- as a tool of dissent. Palestinian Hana Shalabi was released by the Israelis after a 43-day hunger strike, while Mohamed Albajadi in Saudi Arabia is on his 33rd day. Al-Khawaja's hunger strike, by dovetailing on the back of a revolutionary tide, and supported by a digitally wired and outspoken family, has elevated his protest beyond his prison walls.

Al-Khawaja has a long history as the lone voice on taboo issues in the nation's political battle for self-determination. He turned his back on the militant Islamist group Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) that he was associated with in the 1980s and evolved into a leading advocate of non-violent direct action against the al-Khalifa ruling family. In exile in Denmark in the 1990s, he absorbed the human rights discourse and the democratic experience of living in the West. When he returned to Bahrain in 2002, he was determined to fight the system on a human rights platform -- a campaign he brought to the international arena as well as to Bahraini civil society. In 2004 he landed in prison for demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Sulman al-Khalifa who had been in power for 40 years, then a dangerously taboo subject but now the main demand of the "formal" opposition societies such as al-Wefaq. Last year, as he saw regimes appear to fall one by one, al-Khawaja began to call for Bahrain to become a republic, with no place for the royal family. On April 8, he was arrested, no doubt for voicing that radical demand.

The international attention to al-Khawaja has begun to force the long-submerged Bahraini struggle into the international limelight. He is a prisoner who according to Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), is a "prisoner of conscience" and should not be in jail in the first place, having already been subjected to multiple violations: systematic torture, a military trial, and persecution. His plight has put a major roadblock in the path of the team of international public relations firms who have worked for months to rebuild the Bahraini regime's international reputation. As the clock ticks over al-Khawaja's life, this tension could grow. If he dies ahead of the Formula 1 race still scheduled for Bahrain, it will be difficult to imagine the event going ahead at all.

The longer the hunger strike has gone on, the wider the fissures emerging within the regime, as opinion over how to deal with al-Khawaja appear to differ strongly within the royal family. Factions are torn between those who can see logic in releasing him ahead of the planned Formula 1 Grand Prix, and those, particularly the military, who appear blinded by vengeance and would probably rather see al-Khawaja dead than any potential benefits of good will at this critical point in time in the conflict. The Bahraini Foreign Minister, discussing the case on Twitter, questioned the religious permissibility of "voluntary starvation" and re-tweeted the responses that considered it suicide and hence, a sin. There have also been calls by officials and loyalists to deport al-Khawaja and revoke his citizenship on the basis that dual nationality is illegal. The hardliners however, would rather not be seen to cave in to pressure at all.

Al-Khawaja's death would put to end once and for all the hopes for Bahrain's already creaking reform process. His death will make the prospect of genuine peace and reconciliation a distant aspiration. The opposition will be forced to escalate its demands to meet the anger on the street. The long-feared rise of a more radical opposition movement appears to be coming closer to reality. Two bombs went off in the first two weeks of April alone, and militant rhetoric can be heard increasingly publicly from opposition cadres. As their frustration builds and their demands escalate, the conflict increasingly would shift from a political battle to an existential one. The popularity of al-Khawaja has soared over the past two weeks as he has been held up as a symbol of the revolution.

There are very few men like al-Khawaja, with as much resolve and audacity in speaking out against injustice, in a region where the choice for activists is either petro-dollars or prison. He has gained moral authority by showing impressive courage and self-dignity. The regime now faces a moment of truth. Will it allow him to die for his beliefs while the world, finally, is paying heed?

Dr. Ala'a Shehabi is a British-born Bahraini and an economics lecturer in Bahrain. She has a PhD from Imperial College London and previously worked as a policy analyst for RAND Europe, part of the RAND Corporation. Follow here on twitter @alaashehabi.