Iran, United States Finally Learning to Talk

November 4, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: IranUnited States

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.="#more-3805">="#more-3805">

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.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution noted the change in tactics:

Iran's prior negotiating team typically approached the nuclear talks with an apparent determination to avoid ever dealing with or even speaking about the country's nuclear activities. In that context, negotiators who are attempting to respond seriously to specific Western concerns and devise mechanisms that entail new transparency and real constraints on the nuclear program represent the best hope for progress in a decade.

As Maloney suggests, this welcome shift can be seen as part of a broader trend that has been apparent since Rouhani took office and made changes to the makeup of the nuclear negotiating team. One of Rouhani’s first notable moves was to transfer the negotiation process from the national security council to the foreign affairs ministry. This was widely seen as an example of Rouhani taking nuclear negotiations more seriously than his predecessor, not least because it would put Javad Zarif, a well-respected diplomat that some have dubbed “Washington’s favorite Iranian” at the helm of the nuclear program. Now, that serious approach could be bearing fruit. As analyst Michael Adler noted, “Iranian rhetoric and dogma seem to be yielding to the sort of technical discussion which could lead to an agreement.”

Play a long game—but be willing to take baby steps.

Finally, a crucial, if subtle, shift in the two sides’ approaches has been a greater willingness to look at the ultimate goals of the talks—what commentators like to call the ‘endgame’—and to work backwards from there to determine interim steps. To an outside observer, this may seem like an obvious way to negotiate, but as Trita Parsi pointed out, the West in particular has studiously avoided discussions of the ‘endgame’ in an effort to maintain the upper hand in past negotiations. Now, that could be about to change. “The reason Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was visibly upbeat” as early as last month, Parsi argues, “was that, for the first time, the West had agreed to discuss the parameters of the end state.” And moreover, by making any intellectual distinction between the end state and the interim steps in the first place, Western diplomats are acknowledging that process matters. It’s not enough to envision an end state; rather, careful effort needs to be invested to build enough trust to get there.

While Parsi’s view is that the West hasn’t focused enough on the endgame, another perspective is that Iran has focused on the final outcome too much—at the expensive of interim steps needed to bridge the yawning gap between the two sides. Longtime nonproliferation expert and former special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control at the State Department Robert Einhorn argues that while “the P5+1 have long favored an initial phase CBM [confidence-building measure] that would put a brake on Iran’s nuclear program and buy time and space for working out a long-term solution,” Iran has been less willing to embrace these smaller confidence-building steps. And to the extent that it has done so, Tehran’s leaders have tended to ask for disproportionate sanctions relief.

Now, however, it appears that Iranian negotiators are taking seriously the importance of a step-by-step approach: Iran reportedly presented a phased plan that “envisages an initial confidence-building deal within six months.”

What now?

During the present lull preceding the next negotiations in early November, even skeptics are starting to see signs of a welcome recommitment to a substantive and well-thought-out diplomatic process, rather than just the pretenses of one where neither side is willing to concede anything substantial.

In those weeks, however, there’s ample opportunity for either side to undercut the progress that has been made. In Washington, it appears that the biggest spoiler could be Congress, which is already moving to pass new sanctions on Iran, insisting that the positive signals coming out of the talks are not to be trusted. But it’s no secret that sanctions are perceived in Tehran as hostile and escalatory by the already-vilified United States. And Rouhani, Zarif and the rest of the negotiators are already stirring up controversy with Iranian conservative hard-liners who don’t want to see Iran budge even an inch on the nuclear program. Given all this, the imposition of new sanctions at this time would be short-sighted, because it would play into the conservative narrative in Iran that the U.S. has the worst of intentions and that even attempting to negotiate is a concession to the “Great Satan.” Moreover, there’s little evidence to suggest that a new round of sanctions will add meaningful economic pressure that would qualitatively change Iran’s diplomatic calculations.

Congress in particular has tended to act as the “crazy uncle” or the “bad cop” when it comes to sanctioning Iran—probably because there’s no political downside to appearing tough on Iran, and because members of Congress aren’t the ones who deal with the fallout of poorly timed sanctions at negotiation tables in Istanbul, Almaty and Geneva.