Paul Pillar

Jalili's Briefing Book

Many of the inadequacies in how the United States has been approaching negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program reflect either a refusal or an inability to take into account the perspective of the Iranian regime. This sort of reverse perspective is important for success in any negotiation, no matter how much the party on the other side of the table is either respected or loathed. Underlying the failure to take this perspective in the nuclear talks has been a tendency to treat the talks less as a true negotiation than as a forum for Tehran to cry uncle in response to increasing pressure. This tendency has become apparent in numerous ways, even among commentators who ostensibly want the talks to succeed. For example, a recent piece by Dennis Ross (who until recently had a major role in shaping policy toward Iran) begins by stating that the “ultimate goal of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran” is: “Determining whether Iran is willing to accept that its nuclear program must be credibly limited in a way that precludes it from being able to turn civil nuclear power into nuclear weapons.” That's the “ultimate goal”? Isn't the goal of a negotiation instead to reach an agreement rather than deadlock? In this case that means striking a deal that satisfies western concerns about nuclear proliferation while also satisfying Iran's minimum requirements consistent with keeping its nuclear activities peaceful. A reduction of the “goal” to a one-sided test of Iranian willingness to meet a one-issue Western demand is a very different concept.

One hopes that the thinking going into the current round of these negotiations is more realistic about what it will take for these negotiations to succeed. The signs from previous rounds, and from much of the public discourse heading into this week's round, are not very encouraging in that regard. Of course we do not know the details of the thinking and strategy of the Iranian side either. But in the interest of filling some of the void in reverse perspectives, here is a plausible reproduction of the key points in the strategy document that the Iranian government has prepared for its negotiators (no endorsement of these perspectives is implied—the only implication is that we ought to think hard about them):

Subject: The Moscow Talks

The Islamic Republic's principal objectives for the meeting with the P5+1 in Moscow remain essentially unchanged from the meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad. Those objectives are to make progress toward an agreement that will curtail the economic warfare that the West is waging against the Islamic Republic, to achieve recognition for our right to a peaceful nuclear program including the enrichment of uranium, and to avoid damage to the prestige and standing of the Islamic Republic with either domestic or foreign audiences. Over the longer term, a further objective is for the negotiation to be a step toward normality in our relations with the community of nations. For now, however, we must concentrate primarily on what it will take to reach an agreement that satisfies our minimum objectives, taking into account the West's acute and narrow focus on our nuclear activities.

It remains highly uncertain how much desire there is in the West and especially the United States to reach any agreement with us at all. It is even more uncertain whether there is sufficient willingness in the West, and again especially in the United States, to take the steps necessary to reach an agreement. Some vocal figures have been quite open about wanting the negotiations to fail. Others do not openly admit such an aim but insist on conditions so extreme that they obviously would preclude any agreement. This position is characteristic of the Israeli government. Given that this government is the dominant influence on how our nuclear activities get discussed in the United States, similar positions are being voiced in public debate there and in the U.S. Congress. Some in the United States evidently would welcome a war with the Islamic Republic (for reasons our analysts have not entirely been able to figure out, given the very heavy damage such a conflict would inflict on the Americans, and given how recent has been their disastrous experience in Iraq). This still appears to be a minority view, but it may gain support the more that pro-war elements portray such a war as the only alternative to the Islamic Republic obtaining a nuclear weapon—notwithstanding the current peaceful nature of our nuclear activities.

A more widely held viewpoint in the United States is a desire to undermine the Islamic Republic, coupled with a belief that the economic warfare, commonly referred to as sanctions, will precipitate a collapse of the political order in our country. For many in the United States this appears to be what the sanctions are mainly about. Accordingly, we need to be wary of the significant likelihood that the United States and its Western partners are stringing out the negotiations in the hope that the economic pressures will have such a destabilizing effect. Such a stringing-out strategy obviously implies continued obduracy regarding the West's position at the negotiating table.