Shift in West's negotiating tactics boosts prospects for Iran breakthrough

Analysis: Iran officials upbeat on nuclear diplomacy because Western powers have agreed to put an endgame on the table

During his General Assembly trip, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, left, shakes hands with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Sept. 26, 2013.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Much of the optimism over this week's renewed nuclear negotiations with Iran has centered on the signals of flexibility and willingness to compromise being sent by Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, but it may be a little-noticed although critical shift in the West's approach that has raised prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough: For the first time, the P5+1 group (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) has agreed to discuss the endgame of nuclear diplomacy when it meets with Iran's delegation for two days of talks in Geneva starting Tuesday.

The failed negotiation efforts over the past decade have focused on immediate, incremental confidence-building measures but have avoided discussing — much less defining — an end state on which the parties could agree. Seeking progress along a road with no clear destination suited the Western powers, but it left the Iranian side deeply suspicious of the intent of their interlocutors.

Leaving the endgame undefined was preferable to the Western powers for several reasons.

First, Western negotiators believed that defining an end state would be tantamount to giving the Iranians a major concession at the outset of the negotiations. Instead, they preferred to let the journey define the destination — the more concessions that Iran could be persuaded to give, ran the logic, the more favorable the outcome for which the West could hold out.

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Second, Western negotiators wanted to keep as a bargaining chip to be introduced at the conclusion of negotiations any acceptance of an end state that included limited uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. Accepting up front the principle that Iran calls its right to enrich was viewed as a concession offered without reciprocity. "How do you want to know before starting the negotiations what the end result of the negotiations will be?" a senior E.U. negotiator complained in 2010.

Third and most important, there's no agreement within the P5+1 on the terms of an acceptable diplomatic solution. France, for example, strongly rejects any uranium enrichment on Iranian soil; Russia and China uphold Tehran's right to enrichment for civilian purposes once it has met all its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There's no agreement on enrichment even among the European members of the P5+1, with France and Germany far apart on the issue. And while George W. Bush's administration had insisted on zero enrichment, Barack Obama's administration has sent mixed signals and avoided publicly defining its position on the issue. Israel, which is not part of the talks, has insisted that Iran not be permitted to maintain any uranium-enrichment capacity, and its position carries strong support on Capitol Hill.

Clarifying the endgame at the outset of the talks would necessitate tough negotiations within the P5+1, which could jeopardize the crucial unity that the Security Council countries need to maintain vis-a-vis Iran. And it could also provoke a domestic political backlash.

The key to understanding the Iranian perspective on the issue is recognizing that Tehran is the weaker party in this equation and sees itself having little margin for error. A step-by-step process with no clear endgame could see Iran making concessions but still facing international pressure to dispense with even limited enrichment on Iranian soil — a restriction no Iranian politician is willing to accept. But if Iran were to pull out of the talks once that became clear, it would shoulder the blame for the failure of diplomacy amid growing pressure for military action. Tehran has therefore sought to engage in a diplomatic process when prospects of success are deemed sufficiently high, meaning, among other things, an up-front acceptance of some enrichment on Iranian soil.

There are two ways to resolve this imbalance in the risk assessments of Tehran and the West. One would be setting aside the step-by-step process in favor of a going-big approach that seeks to deal with most of the key issues in a single process, in which more is offered and more is demanded. The risks of taking bigger steps is mitigated by results and dividends being relatively immediate; neither side would have to give concessions on credit.

A second approach would be to start talks by defining the end point and then negotiating the steps to achieving that goal.

The reason Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was visibly upbeat after the meeting with his counterparts from the P5+1 in New York was that, for the first time, the West had agreed to discuss the parameters of the end state. Those who have followed the process closely know that the discussion is, in essence, about whether Iran will enrich at the end of the process. That Washington is even engaging in that discussion is indicative of a shift toward accepting limited enrichment under strict inspections.

Hawks in Washington are likely to rally against that approach: Israel’s leadership has called for additional sanctions against Iran in the midst of diplomacy — an approach that would likely prompt the Iranians to walk away — while its supporters on Capitol Hill are portraying any deal that leaves Iran with some enrichment capability as a defeat.

But officials who believe there is no military solution to the standoff have long maintained that the most effective way to ensure that Iran does not go nuclear is by limiting Tehran’s enrichment activities and maximizing inspections and transparency to enforce those limits. This group may include Secretary of State John Kerry, who in April 2009 deemed it “ridiculous” to demand that Tehran surrender its right to any enrichment. “They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose,” Kerry told the Financial Times when he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

If the Obama administration is signaling that it will ultimately accept limited uranium enrichment in Iran under tighter scrutiny once Tehran has satisfied the transparency concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency, it’s offering the Iranian leadership a diplomatic pathway that moderates in Tehran have long sought. That path will still be a difficult one, facing domestic political resistance on both ends as well as the complex challenges of agreeing on the steps toward reaching the agreed end state and lifting of sanctions. But such an agreed-upon end state would satisfy legitimate proliferation concerns of the international community as well as the Iranian bottom-line — and would create incentives for all to keep the process going. That’s why this week’s talks in Geneva, where the sides are expected to put their cards on the table, will reveal whether the optimism that surrounded Rouhani's recent New York visit is sustainable.

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