5 Lessons from Getting Iran to the Table

5 Lessons from Getting Iran to the Table

What the Iran deal can tell us about nuclear diplomacy.

The destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities from the air followed by invasion and a lengthy occupation would have had a chance of long-term success. Yet even the U.S. government found the likely fiscal and domestic political costs of that option unattractive. The option would also have had an international reputational cost. In the absence of unequivocal evidence that Iran sought nuclear weapons and was only months away from reaching its goal, Russia and China would have forestalled the UN Security Council legitimizing the use of force.

The fifth, and final, lesson is that sanctions may not be as effective as is often claimed. In August 2005 Iran’s dismissal of EU proposals for a resolution of Western concerns (because they entailed the cessation of enrichment), and the replacement of a pragmatic Khatami administration by the defiant and provocative administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, led the EU and the United States to adopt a “two-track” approach. In practice this amounted to the gradual intensification of sanctions to force Iran to settle on the terms of the United States and EU. A former White House official has described this as “coercive diplomacy.”

For several years, the United States and the EU avoided sanctions that were likely to affect Iranian living standards. However, at the start of 2012 this concern for the well-being of ordinary Iranians appears to have evaporated. That was when the United States and the EU adopted measures that were designed to cut oil revenues and deny Iranians access to the international banking system.

The U.S. government especially, but also some EU governments, claim that the 2012 sanctions “brought Iran to the negotiating table” and eventually induced the Iranian government to make enough concessions for a comprehensive agreement (the JCPOA) to be possible. There is evidence indicating that this claim seriously overestimates the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy in resolving concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Iran agreed in January 2012 to meet the P5+1 under Turkish auspices. Iran’s agreement preceded the EU’s adoption of sanctions by nearly two weeks. It followed a U.S. and EU decision to drop a precondition for meeting Iran: suspension of all enrichment activity.

During the twelve months following Iran’s “return to the table” in Istanbul, in April 2012, the P5+1 and Iran met five times (the United States and Iran also met secretly during this period). The content and tenor of those exchanges have remained confidential. However, press briefings and the occasional leak suggest no major narrowing of differences, despite the fact that by late 2012 the January sanctions were starting to hurt.

Coercive diplomacy did not transform the prospects for a successful resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue; rather, it was the return to authority, in August 2013, of Iranian pragmatists who were skillful and self-confident negotiators, and who were well versed in the technicalities of the issue, having led the Iranian response to international concerns a decade earlier.

Finally, when the JCPOA at last emerged in July 2015, it was clear that the United States and the EU had conceded that Iran could continue enriching. Washington proclaimed that Iran had satisfied U.S. demands so as to obtain sanctions relief. But this was only part of the story. The concessions Iran made in 2015 had already been on offer—broadly speaking—in 2005. It was the United States’ and EU’s acceptance of an Iranian enrichment program, rather than sanctions, that made the 2015 agreement possible.

The Iranian case provides some evidence for the view that supplier restrictions on access to sensitive technologies may inhibit proliferation but cannot ensure nonproliferation. Supply restrictions can be circumvented, given sufficient determination, and developing technology indigenously can reduce dependence on established nuclear suppliers.

Though this may seem a paradox, encouraging non-NSG parties to the NPT to approach and engage established suppliers of enrichment technology may prove more effective in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons than circumscribing access to enrichment. Dialogue can shed light on motives and intentions, and reduce the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Moreover, it can result in nuclear-fuel arrangements that satisfy the interests of all parties and are consistent with both sovereign rights and obligations stipulated by the NPT.

The Iranian case also suggests that proliferation concerns can be resolved without resorting to coercive diplomacy (sanctions), and that the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy can be overrated. In 2005 the Khatami administration offered concessions that were very similar to core elements of the JCPOA. At that time Iran was under political pressure to resolve international concerns about its nuclear intentions but was free of nuclear-related sanctions. A decade later, relief from sanctions was only one of several Iranian motives for concluding the JCPOA.

Iran’s reaction to the rejection of its 2005 proposals, and to the years of coercive diplomacy that followed, is a reminder that states, like individuals, are sensitive to how others treat them. States react adversely to what they perceive as injustice and are unlikely to adjust their behavior in response to perceived aggression. Changes in behavior are more likely to result from respect, persuasion and, where appropriate, reciprocity. That too is a lesson that can be drawn from the Iranian case.

Peter Jenkins is a member of the executive committee of British Pugwash and former UK Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This article was first published in the March issue of Newsbrief, the flagship current-affairs publication of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the world's oldest independent think tank on international defence and security.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of State