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.

The Moscow talks will be the latest test of the West's seriousness and willingness to reach an agreement. Insofar as the meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad were similar tests, the test results were not encouraging. We need to continue to give the other side, however, every opportunity to demonstrate that it really wants an agreement. This does not imply a change in our basic negotiating posture. After all, we already have made quite clear our willingness to back away from enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. This ought to be the most important possible concession for Westerners, if all of their concern about a so-called Iranian “break-out capability” is to be believed. What the P5+1 put on the table at Baghdad was clearly unacceptable, with no mention of any easing of the economic warfare beyond some spare parts for airplanes. It was unacceptable even without taking into account the blatant inconsistency of placing demands on the Islamic Republic regarding nuclear activities that are not placed on others. As our wayward former colleague Hossein Mousavian put it, the implied trade would be “diamonds for peanuts.”

Although our basic posture may not change, there are things our negotiators at Moscow could effectively emphasize. One is to insist that the P5+1 side do what it has not yet done, which is to specify exactly what would be required for the economic warfare to wind down. Emphasizing this will not only help explore what possibilities there may be for future mutual concessions but also will call the West's bluff as to what the sanctions really are all about. Our negotiators also should use every opportunity to get the P5+1 team to realize that despite the extremely narrow Western focus on our nuclear activities, the two sides are engaged in a much larger bargaining relationship. Although the P5+1 rebuffed our suggestions at Istanbul regarding other topics to discuss, their negotiators need to be reminded that there are many ways in which the Islamic Republic can either help or hinder what is in Western interests. Similarly, the P5+1 negotiators need to be aware that although inspection arrangements with the International Atomic Energy Agency are being discussed in another forum, they really are part of the same overall bargaining relationship. Although we have been quite forthcoming in opening up our nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection, we are not going to give up all of our bargaining chips regarding something like admission of inspectors to military facilities if we are getting nothing in return.

Our negotiators need to keep uppermost in mind the costs and dangers of appearing to bow to the West with one-sided concessions made under pressure. Doing so would be a blow to the power and prestige of the Islamic Republic. It would likely produce internal political difficulties, especially in light of the very broad support that a peaceful nuclear program has among our citizens. There are limits to what even the Supreme Leader could accomplish politically in such circumstances. One-sided concessions under pressure also would be likely to elicit only more pressure—and indeed much commentary in the United States appears to regard sanctions in exactly this way. Given that we still do not know whether most of the economic warfare ever would stop no matter what we do or what we concede regarding the nuclear program, we have to insist up-front on something specific and significant before we make any further concessions.

The Obama regime's posture toward the negotiations is shaped overwhelmingly by two short-term considerations. One is to lower the risk of Israel starting a war, which would be highly damaging to American interests. The other consideration is the president's effort to get reelected. Both of these objectives imply an interest in keeping the negotiations going for the next few months but in maintaining hardline demands—and refusing to reduce economic pressure on the Islamic Republic—so as to stay reasonably consistent with Israel's extreme hard-line posture. This unfortunately will encourage continued inflexibility by the P5+1 at the negotiating table. The only hope for more U.S. flexibility in the next few months is if Obama concludes that reaching at least an interim agreement with the Islamic Republic would not hurt and might even help his chances for reelection. There is a basis for such a conclusion, although that does not seem to be the dominant thinking so far in Washington.

There may be greater hope for some flexibility on the part of the European portion of the P5+1, especially given Hollande's election in France. Europe's severe economic difficulties may work in our favor. Those difficulties should weaken support for an all-pressure posture toward the Islamic Republic because of the effects on the price of oil—either because of sanctions or because of market reactions to anti-Iranian saber-rattling (what has been referred to as the “Netanyahu gasoline tax”).

These are admittedly just slivers of optimism amid much continued reason for pessimism about the West's willingness to reach any agreement with us. Time is not on our side, and there is little or no prospect for easing of the economic warfare regardless of what we do or say in Moscow. But a fair agreement that accepts a peaceful nuclear program is still in our interests. It is thus also in our interests to continue negotiating as long as there is any hope for an agreement, while taking care not to inflict damage on ourselves needlessly without getting anything significant in return. We also can maintain hope of more reasonableness in the future if more in the West come to see what is in their own interests.