Paul Pillar

The Long Road of Negotiations

In May 1968 in Paris, negotiations began to end the Vietnam War, which already had been raging for several years. A partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, a step that the administration of Lyndon Johnson had taken two months earlier, was the precipitating event leading to the initiation of talks. Once inside the same room, the negotiators were immediately seized with a procedural disagreement involving the status of the South Vietnamese government and the communist fighting force in the south, the Viet Cong or National Liberation Front. This disagreement had implications regarding the seating arrangements in the conference room. It was not until the following January that a compromise was reached. It had taken eight months for the negotiators to agree on the shape of the conference table. It would be four more years before the actual peace agreement was signed.

The Paris talks were aimed at ending an ongoing war, one waged at great cost to the United States and, even more so in terms of numbers of casualties, to the Vietnamese communists. Many other international negotiations, not involving an ongoing war, take even longer to yield meaningful results. The Vietnamese negotiations nonetheless have some parallels with the process of negotiating a resolution of the disagreement over Iran's nuclear program. Both involve highly salient issues of the day, not some long-running and little-noticed diplomatic talkfest. In both, some of the biggest U.S. problems have involved an unruly ally. (The obstinacy of the South Vietnamese government was a major reason it took so long to resolve the disagreement over seating arrangements.) And both negotiations were absolutely necessary to resolve the matters in dispute. Neither the United States nor North Vietnam had the ability to resolve their conflict militarily. And neither Iran nor the Western powers have any unilateral solutions to the issues that separate them. The difference is that the Vietnam negotiations were aimed at ending a misguided war, while the most important purpose of the talks with Iran is to prevent such a war from beginning.

Against the backdrop of past negotiations such as the Vietnam talks, the meeting held this weekend in Istanbul is properly seen as just the first step in a process that will require additional steps. (As for procedural issues, it is remarkable how readily Iran dropped its earlier balking over holding the talks in Turkey, especially given what the conflict in Syria has done to Turkish-Iranian relations.)  Much more negotiating time will be required to yield substantive results, especially of a more permanent and final nature, even if interim understandings—which also can be important—are reached in the meantime. Given the nature of the issues, sound and lasting agreements must get into painstakingly negotiated technical details such as monitoring arrangements to ensure that agreed limits to the enrichment of uranium are observed. Time also is required for the negotiating process itself to build trust, bearing in mind that Iran has at least as much reason to distrust the West as the other way around.

The predictable spinning of the Istanbul talks from those anxious to declare diplomatic failure and get on with the war they really seem to want is contrived, with their motivations fairly transparent. The concept of a limited window for diplomacy to yield results is fallacious when the subject is an Iranian nuclear program that dates back to the days of the shah and which has been the subject of repeated overestimates of how close Iran was to building a nuclear weapon. The notion of a window is an artificiality that has mostly to do with the saber rattling of the Israeli government and its attention to the U.S. electoral calendar. Expressed concern about Iran dragging out negotiations loses sight of how, amid ever more onerous sanctions on Iran, Tehran has more reason for concern about the West dragging out negotiations.

The negotiations that mattered most in hammering out a peace accord on Vietnam were not the ones that took place openly over that laboriously agreed-upon conference table but instead the secret talks beginning in August 1969 between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, for which they would later share a Nobel Peace Prize. We do not know if any secret talks are taking place between the United States and Iran. If there are, I hope they stay secret, so they can make progress without interference from troublesome allies, domestic naysayers in both countries and others with an interest in sabotaging them.