WASHINGTON – U.S. sanctions against Iran must be eased in order to convince the nation not to escalate its nuclear program, and negotiations between the two countries should move forward quickly, several Middle East experts said Tuesday.
Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, which sponsored the panel discussion, said that the United States may have to accept that Iran will have “some enrichment capability” after negotiations.
The Iranian government has alleged that its nuclear program is peaceful, but the international community is concerned that it could allow the country to develop nuclear weapons in an unstable region. The development of the Fordow plant inside an Iranian mountain, which began in 2006, has been a long-term concern as has been the recent announcement that Iran is building new equipment at its Natanz nuclear site.
For the U.S., the regional conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Yemen should be a driving factor in reaching an agreement with Iran as soon as possible, Pollack said. If a deal is not reached, the United States will be left with a choice between going to war with Iran or living with the fact that it could have nuclear weapon capabilities, he said.
But Thomas Pickering, co-founder of the Iran Project, an independent nongovernmental entity devoted to improving diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and Iran, said that it is important to avoid conflating different regional problems.
“If we’re out to get Assad, are we ipso facto out to get Iran?” Pickering said. Iran has supported the Syrian regime in its crackdown on civilian protests in the past. If the U.S. continues to support Syrians in their protests against President Bashar al-Assad, Pickering thinks that Iran will view the U.S. as a threat to overhauling its regime.
Iran is holding a presidential election on June because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not permitted to run for a third term. During this transitional time, diplomacy efforts could be difficult as the presidential inauguration is not held happen until fall.
At the same time, Pickering believes that Iran could have a dangerous amount of highly enriched uranium by the summer if it continues production. He said that the Iranian government needs to agree to extensive inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, which would likely include Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are vital now more than ever. But Pollack said he is skeptical that the Ayatollah wants any sort of relationship with the United States. However he isn’t concerned with gaining the Supreme Leader’s favor.
“He doesn’t have to like us,” Pollack said.
Pollack said that if the Ayatollah is concerned about regime change, the smartest move he can make is negotiating a deal with the U.S. Because Iranian people are unhappy with the sanctions imposed on trade in the country, resulting in some lack of access to Western medicine, the Ayatollah could have a problem on his hands if a deal isn’t reached soon.
Pollack was skeptical that the U.S. could get the Ayatollah to agree to one-on-one talks, saying that the form of potential negotiations is still undecided.
“We need to show a lot of flexibility,” Pollack said.
The spread of nuclear weapons to other countries in the region is also a big concern for the U.S., Pollack said, particularly in protecting Israel, where President Obama will travel next month.
Pollack said there has been fear that Saudi Arabia would construct nuclear weapons in response to Iran’s buildup, but Pollack saod the Saudi government has too much at stake to go forward with nuclear weapons.
International negotiations will continue in Almaty, Kazakhstan, next month but Pickering doubts anything conclusive will come from it.
“I’d be very happy and very grateful to be surprised,” Pickering said.