Many international negotiations start with diplomatic dances that involve—ostensibly and/or really—preconditions to the negotiations themselves. Preconditions, or complaints about them, can be used for various purposes. A party that does not really want to negotiate can impose arbitrary conditions that it does not expect the other side to accept. Complaining about preconditions is a way of arguing that the other side doesn't really want to negotiate. Preconditions also might be manipulated to placate domestic constituencies or to try to gain an early advantage in the substance of the negotiations.
What functions as a precondition is not to be equated with what is explicitly labeled as a precondition. And attempts to manipulate the terms of a future agreement should be distinguished from what is necessary to negotiate any agreement at all. Israel, for example, portrays itself as wanting to negotiate without preconditions with the Palestinian Authority and complains about the PA imposing a precondition about ceasing the expansion of settlements in occupied and disputed territory. But the PA understandably sees the continued unilateral colonization of disputed territory through settlements as directly contrary to the whole concept of bilaterally negotiating the future of the disputed territory. Israel's no-conditions posture quickly melts away when the subject is negotiation with Hamas, even though the prior declarations about Israel that are being demanded of Hamas (besides the fact that Israel itself has never made any similar declarations about Hamas) are not needed for those two parties to negotiate agreements on issues that divide them—as demonstrated by the complicated agreements they have already reached on exchanging prisoners.
In the standoff between Iran and the West over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran has been seen in the West as more of an imposer of preconditions because of its insistence on recognition of its right to enrich uranium. But look more closely at the meager stabs at what passes for Western-Iranian diplomacy, and it is apparent that the West is playing this game just as much. Peter Jenkins, a former British permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, has an informative piece at Lobelog.com that explains how the P5+1 (or EU3+3, as the Europeans like to say) is in effect imposing a deal-precluding condition. Jenkins, in addressing why coercion through sanctions ever should have become necessary to get Iran to the negotiating table, quotes a key passage of the letter that EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton sent to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in October and was made public several days ago:
We remain committed to the practical and specific suggestions which we have put forward in the past. These confidence-building steps should form first elements of a phased approach which would eventually lead to a full settlement between us, involving the full implementation by Iran of UNSC and IAEA Board of Governors’ resolutions.
Jenkins aptly explains the effect of this Western posture:
Dr. Jalili and his advisers could be forgiven for interpreting these sentences to mean that there is no point in turning up for talks unless they are committed to satisfying UN and IAEA demands in full. It looks as though the real goal of sanctions is not to get Iran back to the negotiating table, but to get Iran to give way on the demands that it has spent the last six years declining to concede.
In other words, the West is imposing crippling preconditions, which have centered on suspension of all of Iran's uranium enrichment. The rest of Jenkins's piece is also worth reading, partly for explaining why the no-enrichment demand no longer is useful in supporting nonproliferation objectives.
The Western powers would be well-advised to drop anything that functions as a precondition to negotiations, whether it is labeled as such or not, and to start talking substance in detail with the Iranians. Of course, some argue this would risk letting the Iranians string out negotiations while those centrifuges keep spinning (rather like the Palestinians' concern about the Israelis stringing out negotiations while those settlements keep getting constructed). But the risks, as well as the preconditions game, run in both directions. Amid escalating sanctions and all the talk in the West about regime change, the Iranians have at least as much reason to be worried about the West stringing out negotiations while sanctions cause more damage and Iran grows weaker.
What is needed now are not precondition games but serious, broadly scoped negotiations. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offered advice about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that certainly applies there but also to the differences between Iran and the West: “Just get to the damn table.”