The big news over the weekend is the New York Times’ report that the United States and Iran have reached agreement in principle for their first-ever direct bilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The details surrounding the nature of these talks remain unclear, and indeed it is not even clear whether any such agreement even exists, as both countries’ governments issued denials the following day.
As Paul Pillar has already noted at TNI, if true, there could be significant advantages to pursuing bilateral talks as opposed to the existing forum of the P5+1. As he writes, the bilateral format
would be useful because the United States is the most important player in the process, because achieving the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement would be aided by not having to reach a multilateral consensus on each concession and because secrecy could be better preserved with a smaller forum.
This secrecy is particularly valuable because there are powerful forces within each country that are opposed to any sort of concessions toward the other nation. Avoiding any leaks that might blow up a prospective deal before it has been completed is thus a strong imperative, and a good reason to favor a bilateral format over a multilateral one. It’s also, as Pillar observes, a good reason to favor talks that would be held in total secrecy, with both governments denying that they are even talking place. There is little basis for thinking that such negotiations are currently under way, but “we can hope,” as Pillar says.
Nevertheless, even without such secret talks, this announcement holds out at least the potential to be a limited, positive step. Of course, there are a number of potential pitfalls. Most important, Washington must take care to ensure that the bilateral discussions, if they do take place, do not become simply another vehicle for Iran to drag out the process without any prospect of resolution. But it would be folly to not even try. As Nicholas Burns, George W. Bush’s under secretary of state, told the Times, “It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions.” He goes on: “What are we going to do instead? Drive straight into a brick wall called war in 2013, and not try to talk to them?”
Burns is absolutely right. War—and a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be an act of war—is and should always be a choice of last resort. Direct bilateral negotiations with Iran, while providing no guarantee of success, are certainly worth exploring before the United States makes such a consequential choice.