Salehi rejects P5+1 conditions before the start of negotiations, calls for all parties to find “common ground”

In an interview with Khaneh-ye Mellat, the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency (ICANA), Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali-Akbar Salehi discussed recent reports in the Western press that the P5+1, consisting of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany, would attempt to place inflexible demands from the outset on the upcoming negotiations with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, tentatively set to begin this Friday 13 April 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey.

According to the New York Times:

“The Obama administration and its European allies plan to open new negotiations with Iran by demanding the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling of a recently completed nuclear facility deep under a mountain, according to American and European diplomats…They are also calling for a halt in the production of uranium fuel that is considered just a few steps from bomb grade, and the shipment of existing stockpiles of that fuel out of the country, the diplomats said.”

Salehi, calling Western demands “conditions”, responded to these Western press reports by commenting:

“Placing any conditions before the meeting means reaching conclusions before the negotiations, which is completely meaningless, and not a single one of the parties shall accept conditions that are set before the negotiations.”

He continued by saying that in the upcoming meeting both Iran and the P5+1 had their opinions, but that they had to find “common ground”:

“We hope that the P5+1 will honestly sit at the negotiation table…we will candidly endeavour [so] both sides reach common ground in a win-win manner so that both the Islamic Republic of Iran attains its rights and the concerns of the P5+1 that have been expressed up to this point will come to an end.”

Editor’s note: The tone of a number of Western press reports, including Saturday’s NYT article, suggest that Iran, for a variety of reasons including domestic factional strife, is unwilling or unable to negotiate fully over its nuclear program. As the NYT article put it:

“The shift has underscored doubts among Obama administration officials and their European partners about Iran’s readiness to negotiate seriously and to finally answer questions from international nuclear inspectors about its program’s “possible military dimensions”…The Western negotiators all agree that in the first round of talks, Iran must prove its willingness to discuss its nuclear program without preconditions.”

However, both Salehi’s comments and statements from Iranian officials in the past reveal that Iran is willing to seriously negotiate over its nuclear program, under specific circumstances. From the perspective of Iran, the nuclear program is a means through which it can find “common ground” (to quote Salehi) over a wide range of issues that have been sources of conflict between Iran, the US, and their respective allies. These issues could include an end to threats of regime-change against the Islamic Republic, acknowledgement of its role as a major player in the Middle East’s security architecture, lifting of the three decade old sanctions regime, inclusion of Iran in ongoing and future international interventions in the region (such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and potentially Syria), and the creation of a nuclear-weapons free zone in Middle East, among other things.

While the Islamic Republic seems to views negotiations over its nuclear program in the context of what a number of commentators have called a “grand-bargain”, the P5+1, particularly the US and its EU allies, appear to view it as a self-contained issue without significant linkages to larger issues in the Middle East. Were the P5+1 to expand the ambit of negotiations to include a wider array of concerns, Iran would likely be willing to make deep and significant concessions on its nuclear program.

While all sides appear to hold widely divergent positions, the final results of the upcoming negotiations should not be pre-judged. After all, their outcome could become increasingly important as sanctions bite deeper in Iran, President Barack Obama faces re-election, and Israel inches closer to a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.