Negotiations with Iran show promise, but true test comes later

Both sides must avoid the mistakes of the 2003-05 talks between Iran and the EU to broker a deal

November 20, 2013 7:00PM ET
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) sits next to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at the start of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva on Nov. 20, 2013.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

After objections by France caused a momentary disruption, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) are once again united and meeting in Geneva this week with Iranian representatives to strike a deal on Iran's nuclear program. The prospects for success appear favorable.

However, it is also clear that the real hurdles to an enduring deal will not be encountered now, but after the first agreement has been concluded. This is partly because Washington's ability to give concessions has not been truly tested yet. The misinformation spread by Israeli cabinet ministers and opponents of President Barack Obama in the U.S. Congress notwithstanding, most of concessions in the first phase of the deal currently being negotiated in Geneva will be provided by Tehran. In return, the United States and European Union are offering very little. The sanctions relief is minimal and carefully avoids congressional approval. Obama has spent a lot of political capital in the past two weeks simply to convince Congress not to adopt new sanctions. If a deal is reached this week in Geneva, Obama will be faced with the much taller order of getting Congress to actually roll back existing sanctions.

Unfortunately, negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have in the past passed the first hurdle, only to fall apart during the second step, when a final deal must be concluded. Eagerness and pressure to reach a first deal, combined with lack of common clarity on what exactly had been agreed upon, contributed to this.

The mistakes of 2003-05

In 2003, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the United Kingdom convinced Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and implement the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which demands greater transparency. The second phase of the negotiations would then have focused on a final settlement. The Iranian delegation — led by Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif, Iran’s current President and Foreign Minister, respectively — believed the negotiations would focus on finding "objective criteria" that would enable Tehran to exercise its rights to enrich uranium under the NPT while providing the international community with guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program would remain strictly civilian.

Europe, however, had a different perspective. EU representatives began to argue that the only acceptable criteria would be for Iran not to engage in uranium enrichment at all. At least, that is the position they came to adopt once Iran began the suspension. The EU, it appears, had achieved its key objective: The U.S. would no longer have any pretext to start a war with Iran. According to Francois Nicoullaud, France's Ambassador to Iran at the time, the EU's objective then was to prolong the suspension to the greatest extent possible.

Negotiators on both sides must resist pressures from outside interests to change the basic parameters of the deal.

Disagreement over the nature of the suspension helped the EU sustain its refusal to engage more actively. In the Iranians' view, the suspension should have been linked to progress in the negotiations, not an open-ended commitment that could become hostage to the negotiations. The Europeans, however, thought the suspension should have depended on the mere continuation of negotiations, rather than on their progress. Since Europe's key objective was simply to sustain the suspension, its negotiators had little incentive to make progress.

Not surprisingly, Tehran felt duped. By 2005, it became clear that the Iranians were going to break the suspension — and pay the political price for doing so. As soon as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in as the new President of Iran, the end of the suspension was a fait accompli.

The rest is, as they say, history.

Lessons learned

Negotiators in Geneva must be careful not to repeat this mistake. Several factors indicate that key lessons from the 2003-05 debacle have been learned. First, the second and last phase of the negotiations is time-limited — only six months — with the option of extending it if both sides agree. Hence, neither side will have the ability or the incentives to play for time.

Second, both sides will retain some leverage during the second phase of negotiations. While Iran will suspend enrichment at the 20 percent level and not bring new centrifuges online, it will continue to enrich at the 5 percent level required for civilian use in nuclear power plants. Similarly, the Western side will not add new sanctions, but will also not roll back its chief sanctions — against Iran's Central Bank and its ability to export oil — until the final deal has been reached. Contrast this to the 2003-05 talks, where Iran had given up its key leverage at the outset by agreeing to the suspension.

Third, the key principles shaping the successful resolution of negotiations have been agreed upon. Due to French objections during the previous round of talks in Geneva to the language bearing on Iran's right to enrich, all sides must be clear that Iran will retain some enrichment activities below 5 percent and under strict inspections at the end of the negotiations. The dimensions of this program will be negotiated, but the program itself cannot be eliminated. Any attempt to change these principles during negotiations will ensure that a final deal will not be reached.

The key to success in Geneva this week is balance. Negotiators on both sides must resist pressures from various outside interests to change the basic parameters of the deal, lest they repeat the mistakes from 2003-05. If either side bargains too hard and leaves the other side with too little leverage for the second phase, the losing side will be left with strong incentives to abandon the deal altogether.

Trita Parsi is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He is also author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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