Breaking the Deadlock in the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

Posted on Tuesday 18th December 2012

Josh Baker, Scott Lucas, and Nicholas J. Wheeler

Following the recent re-election of President Obama, attention has turned yet again to the prospect of new negotiations between the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China) and Iran. Whilst there have been indications that Iran wished to restart talks since the previous round of discussions ended in June 2012, the Western powers, led by the United States, wanted to delay talks until after the US elections. Now that this hurdle has been cleared and President Obama has been returned for a second term, speculation has centred on whether the administration might come forward with a more imaginative set of proposals that could break the negotiating stalemate which characterised the first term. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has recently put forward that possibility. Speaking on November 30th, she claimed that ‘we [the United States] continue to believe that there is still a window of opportunity to reach some kind of resolution over Iran's nuclear program…the fact that we finished our election…would be a good time to test the proposition that there can be some good-faith serious negotiations’.

In theory, Clinton might be right.  As the historian John Lewis Gaddis has argued, ‘second terms in the White House open the way for second thoughts’ as they ‘lessen…the influence of domestic political considerations’. Second terms, then, might provide the necessary political space to make the moves it takes to transform deep-rooted conflicts. The most notable example being Ronald Reagan’s road to Damascus type conversion on the wisdom of negotiating with the Soviet Union. This was significantly influenced by his growing fears of nuclear war which came to a head with the Able Archer crisis of 1983. Reagan’s decision to enter into negotiations with Moscow bore fruit when he found in Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the leader of the Soviet Union in March 1985, an interlocutor whom he could trust, leading to a remarkable transformation of US-Soviet relations in the second half of the 1980s.  A key factor facilitating this transformation was the sweeping mandate that Reagan secured through his overwhelming election victory.  This example raises the question as to whether Obama’s victory - though not as sweeping as Reagan’s - might create a new-found political space within which to make moves which could similarly transform US-Iranian nuclear relations.  However, there is an important dimension - and difference - to be noted in the past and present. In 1985, the initiative to end the Cold War came from Gorbachev with his game-changing proposals. Rather than trying to exploit Soviet gestures to weaken the Soviet Union, the Reagan Administration worked with Gorbachev to advance arms control agreements that promoted mutual security.

In December 2012, we are at a stage of negotiations where each side is looking to the other to make a decisive game-changing move. From Tehran's point of view, Iran has already made a number of significant gestures in recent months, most notably the offer to suspend enrichment of 20 per cent Uranium in return for equally calibrated reductions in sanctions. At the same time, it has arguably made a further concession by increasing the level of conversion of its existing stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium into fuel plates for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) to reassure Western concerns about its nuclear break-out capability. The Iranian leadership believes that the promised concession on the 20 per cent and the actual step of converting half of its stock has not been met with any equivalent reciprocation by the United States and its key allies.

In a classic example of each side failing to understand the other’s position, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have not interpreted these Iranian moves as conciliatory ones. Consequently, the Western powers are looking to Tehran to make a significant first move in breaking the negotiating impasse when Tehran believes it has already done this. What the Western powers are seeking as an Iranian opening move is the so-called ‘stop, ship, and shut’ policy (freezing 20 per cent production, shipping the existing stockpile of 20 per cent out of the country, and closing the Fordoo plant).   They have said that were this to happen, they would then consider reciprocation, including the distant possibility of limited sanctions relief. Such an opening gambit has been interpreted in Tehran as a demand for unilateral concessions dressed up in the garb of the language of reciprocity. Indeed, former Iranian nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, likened the Western strategy to one of ‘peanuts for diamonds.’  

Despite these apparently irreconcilable negotiating positions, there is a possible way forward. This would be to put into practice the principle of reciprocity which Clinton recently lauded as the basis of any future negotiations with Iran. She said that the United States ‘expect reciprocity’ from Iran, but this assumes that the Obama administration has come forward with a proposal which could form the basis for eliciting Iranian reciprocation. But as Laura Rozen and others have argued, current signals from the United States and their partners in the E-3 indicate that the Western powers intend to simply repackage the ‘stop, shut and ship’ proposal. In other words, what is lacking from the table is an offer on the Western side to make concessions which meet Iran’s core security concerns – crucially sanctions relief – conditioned on Iranian reciprocation which meets Western fears about Iranian nuclear weapon ambitions. In short, the language of reciprocation is being used by the Obama administration to demand Iranian concessions without Washington accepting that success in the negotiations depend upon the principle of mutuality. 

Rather than framing the negotiating process as one in which the players seek to secure unilateral concessions, a realistic basis for a settlement would be to structure the negotiations around a compromise which includes two key elements. First and foremost, any proposal which is to gain traction within the Iranian political system has to include a process leading to significant sanctions relief. Second, while effective limitations and monitoring of Iran’s capability to further enrich[j1]  its stockpile of enriched uranium (both the larger supply of 3.5 per cent and the growing stockpile of 20 per cent) to weapons grade must be agreed, Iran’s right to possess indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities (including enrichment) has to be recognised in any settlement of the nuclear issue. An agreement modelled on these lines would meet both the spirit and letter of the principle of reciprocity. 

Yet, even if President Obama and his senior advisors were persuaded that this was the way forward, it is debatable whether Obama has the political support within Congress - which across both houses has supported increasingly draconian sanctions against Iran – to make even a negotiating strategy conditioned on Iranian reciprocation viable. The scale of the political challenge facing the president were he to decide to significantly change course on Iran was underlined on November 30th when the US Senate voted 94-0 to extend the current sanctions.

If the Obama Administration simply repackage the ‘stop, shut and ship’ proposal, then the stalemate will continue into its second term in the absence of major Iranian concessions. But waiting on Iran to make the first move before offering anything more significant, and thereby dismissing in Iranian eyes what they view as prior conciliatory moves, risks poisoning still further the relationship between the West and Iran. This scenario makes the language of ‘reciprocity’ a slogan rather than a practical policy, a signal which Tehran will view as an empty gesture masking a continuing US plan to weaken the Islamic Republic. The Obama administration and its strongest supporters among the six, as well as Israel, are betting on sanctions so weakening their Iranian adversary that they come to the table prepared to make dramatic concessions. If this prognosis proves unwarranted, and Tehran continues to develop its nuclear programme in ways which frighten the Western powers and especially Israel, then the subsequent resentment and mistrust will be accompanied by an increased risk of military conflict. What we must hope, however, is that as the risks of confrontation increase, those voices calling for a new strategy will gain greater credence in the counsels of power. The only way out of this dead-end is to make reciprocity meaningful by both sides committing themselves to actions which reassure the other and promote mutual security. This is the real challenge behind the US invitation to enter into ‘good-faith serious negotiations.’

 

Josh Baker is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Studies and Research Assistant in the Institute of Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham; Scott Lucas is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham and Founding Editor of the news agency EA WorldView; and Nicholas J. Wheeler is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, and Principal Investigator of the ESRC/AHRC funded project under Research Councils UK’s Global Uncertainties Programme on ‘The Challenges to Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds’