Iran, United States Finally Learning to Talk

How negotiations have gotten more substantive.

Frequently, when statesmen or governments make the blunders that their predecessors also made, it’s pointed out gloomily that history repeats itself. But earlier this month in Geneva, the world saw a welcome example of nations attempting to learn from history. Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have gone on for a decade, with little progress to show for it. Now, however, recent actions on both sides indicate a promising, if fragile, attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past ten years. The recent Geneva talks concluded on a note of optimism, with diplomats on both sides offering unusually positive comments about the productive nature of the sessions. Observers in Washington, Tehran, and around the world are waiting eagerly—but cautiously—to see whether those words will be backed up by actions. A close look at how the Geneva talks displayed improvement over past negotiations suggests that those who back a negotiated settlement to the Iran impasse may finally have some reason for optimism.

Don’t start with a nonstarter

First and most importantly, negotiations are doomed to fail if one side makes a demand that’s a nonstarter for the other side. Western powers may be willing to be more flexible than in previous years on the question of Iran’s right to enrich uranium at low levels. The George W. Bush administration insisted that Iran must relinquish any right to enrich, which has always been an unacceptable condition for Iran. The insistence on “zero enrichment” was one of the key factors leading to the collapse of potential deals throughout the early 2000s. Now, the issue has become a potential opportunity for Iran and others to portray Washington as a “bogeyman” making unrealistic demands rather than pursuing an achievable deal.

For this reason, most international-security experts agree that no negotiated settlement with Iran is possible unless it allows the country to retain a civilian uranium enrichment program, under intrusive international inspections. Obama administration officials have paid vague lip service to this fact, but it is only recently that they appear to be seriously entertaining the idea at the actual negotiating table. Reports on the eve of the Geneva talks suggested that the Obama administration might be willing to accept a tightly capped enrichment program on Iranian soil, although officials haven’t formally adopted this position. Predictably, hardliners in the U.S. and Israel balked at this. But their objection ignores the historical fact that civilian enrichment simply must be part of a nuclear deal.

It’s easy to see why negotiations that started off with maximalist demands like zero enrichment led to a sense on both sides that the process was doomed to fail from the start. Once talks ended in stalemate, the result was often escalation, in the form of Iran ramping up its nuclear production or the West imposing more punitive sanctions.

That’s why it’ll be encouraging if the Obama administration finally starts to take seriously the problems with the zero-enrichment demand. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association remarked that “success will come from accepting what is most needed, not from demanding what is most desired.” The apparent willingness to change course on this count is a welcome sign that we may be learning from history.

Focus on the issue at hand

On the Iranian side, there has been a gradual realization in Tehran that the nuclear program needs to be treated like the serious issue that it is.In previous years, the West has criticized Iranian proposals on the grounds that the proposals were too vague regarding steps Iran would take to address concerns over its nuclear program. Iran’s unwillingness to address head-on the most important aspect of the stalemate contributed to a sense that Iran was unserious, deceptive, and focused more on extracting concessions on other fronts unrelated to proliferation concerns.

Now, however, the Iranians are exhibiting a greater willingness to put the nuclear issue front and center. Details about Iran’s latest proposal remain patchy, but reports indicate that Iran has put forth a proposal that’s far more specific than some of its predecessors. For example, in addition to limiting its production of 20 percent enriched uranium, Iran also appears to be somewhat more receptive to adopting the Additional Protocol, an intrusive inspections regime that would go far to reassure the international community that a nuclear deal is verifiable and sustainable.