“I failed my way to success,” renowned inventor Thomas Edison reportedly said.
The same statement could be made by Iran and the P5+1 (The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) about their ability to get this far in the nuclear negotiations that began in November 2013.
With the current round of talks in Geneva, the parties have reached a climactic moment; they are trying to finalize an agreement before a self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline. No matter what the outcome, it is remarkable that the negotiations have gotten even to this point.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the road of U.S failures in dealing with Iran is a road well traveled. This road was most recently frequented by President George W. Bush.
For years, when it came to negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program, he insisted on the condition that Iran suspend uranium enrichment first. It was revealed in 2013 that in 2004 he made an offer to Iran to reach a grand bargain through direct talks. After Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the offer, the Bush administration went back to its original policy of basing talks on conditions and maintained it until the end of his term.
That policy turned out to be a failure for numerous reasons. First and foremost, Iran has a right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Second, because of the zero-sum nature of the Bush approach, many countries, including U.S. allies in Europe, were reluctant to join his campaign against Iran. The Russians and the Chinese, both members of the Security Council, adamantly opposed Bush’s Iran policy.
The election of President Barack Obama changed that dynamic. Less than one month after he entered office, his administration declared its readiness for direct talks with Iran, without conditions. Such willingness by Obama, which he maintained despite Iran’s initial refusal, is one of the reasons the negotiations have made it this far.
Iran has also failed its way to success so far.
There have been many mistakes by the Iranian leadership, the consequences of which finally persuaded Khamenei to approve a new approach. One of his most notable mistakes was to reject offers of talks with the Obama administration for four years.
Obama made his initial offer on Jan. 21, 2009 — the day after his first inauguration. But he had to wait until March 2013, three months before the end of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term, before Khamenei approved secret talks with the U.S. in Oman. From 2009 to 2013, not only did Iran spurn direct talks with the U.S, but — as was revealed in October 2011 and later proved in a U.S. federal court — its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was also hatching a plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Perhaps the biggest mistake by the Iranian elite was its belief that sanctions would never be imposed, especially against Iran’s oil. As Iran’s former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stated in September 2013, before sanctions were imposed against Iran’s oil industry, many believed that such sanctions would push the price of oil to $250 per barrel — an unacceptable risk. Such a prediction proved foolhardy.
Even if the talks fail to produce any result by Nov. 24, those who support direct diplomacy can be proud of a number of recent successes, chief among them the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between Iran and the P5+1, which was signed on Nov. 24, 2013.
The JPOA worked. After years of suspicion and animosity Iran and the U.S., kept to their sides of the deal. This was despite claims such as Israel’s former U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold’s that Iran would “fudge its commitments.” The JPOA also demonstrated that both sides are ready to make compromises that they were very reluctant to make before.
However, the talks may yet fail to produce any concrete results. This risk is difficult to assess; the negotiators have been successful so far in keeping the details of the talks to themselves.
If the talks fail and the two sides refuse to extend them, then two scenarios present themselves.
First, the two sides could decide to escalate — Iran by upping its uranium enrichment levels back to 20 percent and the U.S by imposing new sanctions.
Second, both sides could try to avoid escalation by continuing with the status quo ante set by the JPOA, which, among other things, limits the level of enrichment by Iran and the imposition of new sanctions by the U.S.
Because of the lessons of past failures learned by both sides, the second scenario is more likely to prevail. In fact, even if the talks totally break down, both sides could decide to reverse course, so stark are the previous failures and the recent success of the JPOA. The anticipated strengthening of Republican control in Congress come January makes successful talks ever more pressing.
“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless,” Thomas Edison also reportedly said. Even if the current talks fail, it certainly does not mean that they were useless. At minimum, they have set a precedent for success, and that in itself is a major achievement.