By Thad Bowman – After weeks of diplomatic sparring, a venue has finally been
set for the upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France,
Germany, Russia, UK, and the US). Tehran
has agreed to attend the talks in Istanbul a location it deemed “compromised”
just days earlier. This concession may be the first small step in reaching a
negotiated settlement in talks that have failed to bear fruit for nearly a
decade. But getting to the table is only half the battle, as history has
shown. The US needs to emphasize the
diplomatic engagement component of its “dual track strategy” to create a
negotiating process that yields realistic concessions from the Islamic Republic. The trick for the US will be to get
concessions from Iran that will please US allies and guarantee standing
security assurances, while at the same time, asking for concessions and
providing incentives that will be acceptable to Tehran.
Talks have broken down in the past largely because the US
and Iran have treated them as a forum to issue ultimatums, rather than an arena
to build a negotiating process based on mutual concessions and confidence
building measures. Subsequently, talks
have been destined to fail even before they begin because each side is so
unwilling to compromise on key issues and skeptical of the negotiating process
This time both sides must be willing to make concessions and
offer incentives to reach a negotiated settlement or, at the very least, to
take half steps that might begin to build confidence between Iran and the
international community. As Thomas
Pickering stated in testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “The
challenge for diplomacy on both sides will be to turn the old zero-sum question
into a new era in which we try to extract some win-win results. Compromises that are painful on both sides
will be needed.” The coalition must find a way to achieve
its objectives, while at the same time allowing Iran to save face. As sanctions squeeze the life from Iran’s
economy, and threats of war resonate more strongly, the leadership in Tehran
seems to be approaching these talks more productively than in the past, but
they will not accept an embarrassing public defeat.
Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Akbar Salehi, has
emphatically stated that Tehran will not accept any preconditions for the
negotiations. This statement should
resonate strongly with the Obama Administration, which has already suggested
through press leaks that it will demand the closing of a recently completed
underground enrichment facility in Fordo.
Iran is unlikely to accept this demand outright.
The most contentious issue will be Iran’s uranium enrichment
program. The international community
wants Iran to stop its enrichment efforts, particularly the enrichment of 20
percent uranium, which can rapidly be converted into weapons-grade fuel. Iran insists the 20 percent uranium is for
fuel rods for its medical/research reactor, and that, as an NPT signatory, it
is guaranteed the right to peaceful uses of nuclear technology. However, the head of the Iranian Atomic
Energy Organization, Ferydoon Abbasi, was quoted by Iranian news sources as saying
that Iran would eventually limit uranium enrichment to only lower levels of
purity, so there is some prospect for success.
If the coalition concedes Iran’s right to enrichment in
principle, Iran will have to prove that its enrichment efforts are for civilian
purposes only through a series of confidence-building measures.
First, it will have to stop 20 percent enrichment, as it
already has enough of the material for its reactor’s needs and apparently
cannot fabricate the raw material into fuel rods in any event. The US and its allies can offer to provide
fuel rods in exchange for moving the 20 percent enriched uranium out of Iran,
as it has in the past. In his testimony,
Ambassador Pickering suggested such a fuel swap and enrichment cap agreement. Second, Iran must provide greater transparency
to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors by implementing the
Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement, allowing monitors access to
declared non-nuclear facilities, such as the Parchin military base at which it
is believed to have experimented with nuclear bomb “triggers.”
Once the nuclear issue is set aside, the P5+1 can consider
the gradual lifting of sanctions, a process which should go hand-in-hand with a continuing
moratorium on 20 percent uranium enrichment and strict limits on the size of
stockpiles of 5 percent enriched uranium consistent with Iran’s peaceful needs
for the material. Future negotiations
might aim to begin to clear the atmosphere of mistrust. If Iran implements greater transparency
measures, for example, the West can begin to introduce other incentives to
promote further cooperation.
Karim Sadjadpour, another panelist at the Senate hearing
noted, “Khamenei’s aversion to compromise is well-established. He’s long asserted that Washington’s
underlying goal in Tehran is not behavior change but regime change, and
yielding to coercion would only project weakness and invite greater pressure
from Washington.” Mutual cooperation and subsequent efforts to
help Iran rebuild its economy and tackle regional problems may begin to heal
the current relationship of mistrust and misunderstanding.
If Iran resumes negotiations with the P5+1 seriously, as its
nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili indicated in his acceptance letter, the US
should be ready to deemphasize the coercive elements of its policy towards the
This means an end to military threats
and an end to covert actions in Iran.
The chance to normalize relations with Iran may still seem far away, but
the price of failure also weighs greatly.
Hopefully, Iran is finally ready to prove that its nuclear program can
be limited to peaceful purposes and the United States is willing listen.
Photo Credit: IAEA, http://www.iaea.org/About/dg/elbaradei/photoalbum.html?id=DGPressConfIran