Negotiating with Iran
Most of the Iran news is about war: Will sanctions cause war? Will Israel strike Iran? Will Iran close the Strait of Hormuz? But there’s another path forward, and several elements of it are in play: negotiations.
Let’s look at that other path, its pluses and minuses. The big plus is that it keeps a lot of people from being killed and a lot of money being spent unproductively. The big minus is that it seems less decisive than war and therefore is less attractive to some; at worst, it could allow Iran to acquire the capability to make nuclear weapons, or even the weapons themselves.
The first step is to agree on the arrangements for the talks. The body of nations that has been negotiating with Iran is called the P5+1. The P5+1 (also called the E3+3 when Europe is being emphasized) is made up of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, and People's Republic of China), plus Germany. In October, Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, wrote a letter to Iran on behalf of the P5+1 proposing that talks begin again. Letters of this sort are usually written with the consent of the receiving party, in this case, Iran. Iran has not yet responded.
Iranian officials have, however, made a number of public statements about the need for talks, that the talks must be without precondition, that they are ready to admit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to all sites, and that they have fabricated and are irradiating a reactor fuel element. In response to the sanctions to be imposed by the EU, they have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and to take less-defined actions.
There is a great deal of posturing, with some genuine threat, from both sides. For most of us, watching from the sidelines, it’s difficult to figure up how much is which. It may be difficult for those directly involved, as well; the rhetoric from the other side and partisans on one’s own side can push matters in one direction or another. This may be the purpose of the killings of Iranian scientists. The shifting balance between posturing and threat is also what could tip the situation into war.
Turkey has offered to host the talks. As a NATO member and an Islamic nation bordering Iran, Turkey is a good intermediary. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil negotiated an agreement with Iran that was turned down by the United States. But they’re willing to keep trying.
The next step is for Iran to formally accept, by letter, the proposal for talks. There will then be jockeying over the arrangements, although in previous talks between the P5+1 and Iran, arrangements have not been a major problem.
The substance of the talks will be difficult. Both sides have internal factions that will work against accomodations. Both the United States and Iran have presidential elections this year. Past negotiations and cultural differences will provide misunderstandings.
But both sides surely are preparing their positions. All public discussion of those positions will be part of the negotiating strategies and must be taken that way. The media do none of us any service with their preference for presenting such statements as hard-and-fast, unalterable goals. A good negotiator begins with maximum demands and insists that they must be met at first.
But, if the negotiation goes well, intermediate positions will be developed and agreed upon. These scenarios are what should be in preparation now: what can we give up and what do we really want to get?
There are some small indicators of those scenarios, or suggestions as to what they might be. The desirable endgame for the P5+1 is that Iran not build nuclear weapons. It’s harder to say what the desirable endgame is for Iran, but it would definitely include continuing their uranium enrichment program. It might also include something about security guarantees, but I haven’t seen that commented upon lately.
Laura Rozen says that her US government sources tell her that the first steps to be offered in the negotiation are for Iran “to halt enriching uranium to 20 percent, and turn over its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. In exchange, western countries would agree not to pass another UN Security Council Resolution sanctioning Iran.”
Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA inspector, suggests a similar move on Iran’s part without saying what the P5+1 might offer in return.
There are a few ways to go about it. One way would be to suspend the production of enriched uranium and convert the existing 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium stocks, with the assistance of the international community, to fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, as well as for another modern research reactor that could be provided to Iran. This approach would be good for Iran, as it would give the country a sustainable production of radioisotopes for industrial and medical uses in the shortest time.
Iran would also have to address the world's concerns about the military dimensions of its nuclear program, concerns laid out in the IAEA's most recent monitoring report.
Yousaf Butt responds to Heinonen’s suggestion, pointing out that there must be something for Iran in any bargain, and suggests
Perhaps the best way to do so is to offer Iran a simple quid pro quo: If Iran agrees to more intrusive inspections under the IAEA's Additional Protocol, both the unilateral and U.N. Security Council sanctions will be dropped.
Tony Karon reports
Late in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a BBC interviewer that a diplomatic solution would include Iran’s exercising its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes once it “restored the confidence of the international community” that its program had no military objective. In response, an influential group of U.S. Senators wrote to Obama demanding that the U.S. “make clear that, given the government of Iran’s patterns of deception and noncooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future,” warning that they would strongly oppose any diplomatic outcome in which Iran was permitted to continue enriching uranium.
The bigger steps would come later in the negotiating process, after a confidence-building measure of the type Rozen describes. It’s important to have an endgame in mind as the confidence-building measures are negotiated.
Something else that needs to be in the long-term calculations is security guarantees to Iran. Israel has an arsenal of maybe 200 nuclear weapons, there is unrest across the Middle East, and there’s the United States in the background. One route to this goal is the formation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, the first conference for which is planned for Finland this year. Such a zone won’t be formed any time soon, but these talks can start to indicate the shape of a security agreement.
And one small thing that may be happening now, in parallel to the other efforts, is the help being given by the US Navy and NATO to Iranian fishermen in trouble. This is the kind of thing that can lead to diplomatic communication on other issues. But we won’t hear about more than the Navy rescues until something is achieved.
The photo is of the 1973 Paris negotiations to end the Vietnam War, from this website. The big preliminary issue then was the shape of the table, which seemed to take forever to resolve.
Updated: Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association addresses the issues I raise here in more detail (pdf).