Judy Asks: U.S.-Iran Talks—What is Needed for a Breakthrough?

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Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the international challenges shaping Europe's role in the world.

Olaf Boehnkehead of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Listening to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi during this year's Munich Security Conference (MSC) immediately reminded me of my first MSC attendance in 2010. Back then everybody gathered late in the evening for a so-called "night owl"-session because Salehi's predecessor, Manouchehr Mottaki, had agreed at the last minute to discuss the nuclear issue with his Swedish colleague Carl Bildt.

The debate lasted for more than ninety minutes. Mottaki was positive about the potential for a deal with the P5+1 countries over transferring Iranian low-enriched uranium to a third country in exchange for nuclear fuel, as proposed by the IAEA.

Carl Bildt concluded by addressing his Iranian colleague with a sober "… thanks for coming".

Three years later, little seems to have changed, despite the fact that Iran is facing hyperinflation, a significant shut-down of its oil exports and the freeze of its central bank assets due to surprisingly successful sanctions by the EU 3+3. A look at the ECFR Scorecard 2013 proves that coordination between the United States and Europe on Iran and the nuclear file continues to be the most successful transatlantic policy issue in terms of unity, resources, and outcome. So, lesson number one is: never change a winning team and strategy.

Having said this, first of all Salehi's promising words have to survive the reality check test, which means Tehran has to agree on a new meeting with the EU 3+3 to continue the negotiations process. If Salehi's "commitment" should materialize into more than the usual Persian tactic of buying time, the difference may be due to the near loss of its most important ally in the Arab world, Syria.

Lesson two: what is still missing is trust and respect on both sides! So every investment in Track II—meaning backchannel diplomacy—approaches and confidence building measures are much needed and highly welcome. But as it takes two to tango, all that the U.S. government can do is to remain honest and open and to continue its successful cooperation with their European partners. Maybe this way, one day we'll get out of this Persian Groundhog Day loop.

Mark Hibbssenior associate in Carnegie's Nuclear Policy Program

The P5+1 may soon launch negotiations with Iran to resolve the crisis provoked by Tehran’s unbridled nuclear program.

As diplomats warn that the “window of opportunity” for talks may be limited by a possible Israeli attack on Iran, the temptation may be great to find a shortcut and come to an agreement with Iran quickly. Some observers have even suggested that it would be easier to strike an accord with Iran if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) didn’t ask questions about past activities in Iran that may have been related to nuclear weapons research. Tehran has hinted it might make a deal if it could save face and the IAEA’s mandate was limited.

The way events unfolded in North Korea two decades ago suggests, however, that curtailing the IAEA’s authority is not the way to resolve the Iran crisis. In 1993, a saber-rattling Pyongyang announced it would quit the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The United States then struck a bargain in a hurry to get North Korea to suspend its withdrawal. To accommodate Pyongyang, the deal also suspended the IAEA’s legal authority to do verification in North Korea. This meant that from that time, the IAEA had to negotiate its access to the country with Pyongyang and that future IAEA verifications became hostage to the bilateral relationship between North Korea and the United States. This arrangement broke down when, during the rest of the 1990s, North Korea ratcheted up pressure on the United States to provide more benefits and the United States would not comply. North Korea took advantage of the absence of the IAEA in the field by violating its safeguard agreement and making nuclear weapons.

For a comprehensive settlement of the Iran crisis, the powers negotiating with Iran must make sure that the IAEA has the authority to verify that all of Iran’s nuclear activities are accounted for. This must be firmly established in the agreement. If the IAEA does not have enough access to confidently assert that Iran’s nuclear program is fully understood and peaceful, an agreement with Iran will not be robust. Its credibility will come under attack and it will ultimately fail.

Jonas Parello-Plesnersenior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

On Iran, Obama II could take advice from Obama I, himself, the candidate from 2008, who stated that he, in office, was going to “speak with the enemy”. At that time, John McCain, being a far more seasoned candidate, ridiculed Obama for his naïve vision of the world and foreign policy. Once he was in office, however, Obama did not do much naïve reaching out to U.S. adversaries, from North Korea, to Cuba to Iran. In fact, Obama has just completed four years of quite realistic foreign policy in which he showed himself to be a president of drones and targeted killings, too.

The initial Obama outreach to North Korea came to nothing when the North Koreans shut the door in his face and tested their nuclear-tinted fireworks. Burma opened up on its own, although the United States was quick to reciprocate, crowning the resumption of contacts with a presidential visit.

On Iran, the current policy of sanctions and some limited dialogue on the nuclear issue seems to have gone nowhere. It did not induce any change in Iran’s behavior. Now U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden has offered direct bilateral talks. That seems a fresh and promising start.

“Speaking with the enemy” shouldn’t be a goal in itself but part of a sequenced diplomatic strategy. It can be employed by Americans to promise Iran higher level contacts. Such a step-by-step approach could serve to demonstrate good faith on both sides. The quick grand bargain type of agreement which was tried—unsuccessfully—with North Korea probably wouldn’t work with Iran either. One has to move slowly through smaller steps that raise confidence levels on both sides. Through these you build up towards the highest level encounter.

The United States can offer carrots such as the gradual restoration of diplomatic ties—you can do that and still maintain sanctions, as European countries have diplomatic relations and also sanctions on Iran—or the renewal of cultural ties. Iran should become the test case of whether a policy of speaking with the enemy can be transformed from an airy campaign promise to a policy that can deliver lasting foreign policy results.

 

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