The Iran Project

Five practical tips on Iran nuclear talks

This fall, as Iran and the world powers resume their intense negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal, from Iran’s vantage point this author as an expert on Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs offers the following recommendations to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team.  These recommendations are based on close scrutiny of the process of negotiations over the past decade and, in particular, the international, regional, and Western contexts of the present stage in the on-going nuclear negotiations.

1.  Avoid a UN-centric approach to the talks:   Iran’s position has evolved from dismissing the importance of UN sanctions resolutions on Iran as “worthless papers” during the previous administration to the opposite of giving utmost centrality to these resolutions, which Iran now insists must be removed as part of the final deal.  The advantage of Iran’s approach is that if the UN resolutions are considered moot and or rescinded by a new UN Security Council resolution, then all the other unilateral, mainly US and European, sanctions lose their legal foundation on which they are based. But, the problem with this approach is that Iran is not necessarily insisting on an immediate, and parallel, removal of Western sanctions, in due consideration of the internal politics of US and Congressional opposition, as a result of which the US is unlikely to agree to the prior removal of UN sanctions, which would pull the rugs underneath the US sanctions.

The other problem with Iran’s UN-centric approach is that it poses the risk of boxing Iran in a pre-determined position and thus serve as a self-inflicted wound, whereas a less central focus on the UN Sanctions resolution gives Iran greater flexibility.  Of course, ultimately the UN sanctions would have to be removed in any final deal, but the requirement of practical freeze on those sanctions via Western agreement to lift the sanctions can itself act as a major assault on those sanctions, in effect rendering them meaningless. Thus, instead of a “structuralist” approach that gives primacy to the UN sanctions, the proposed alternative here is to focus on the unilateral Western sanctions that pose the great economic discomfort to Iran and thus indirectly nullify the UN sanctions.  This more pragmatic approach avoids the rigidity of the UN-centric ‘structural’ or rather legalistic approach that gives undue importance to the role and influence of UN sanctions resolutions on Iran.  Not only that, through a NAM-led resolution in the UN General Assembly, Iran can fortify its legal standing in the UN and the international community, i.e., another indirect jab at the UN Security Council resolutions.  After all, what matters most for Iran is getting rid of the actual sanctions and drilling a huge hole in the sanctions regime, which will inevitably fall into pieces in a final deal that lifts the Western sanctions, with our without changing the make-up of UN sanctions resolutions.

2.  Shift the discourse from giving assurances of Iran’s peaceful intentions to the dire consequences of failure:   Clearly, the US and Europeans are moved more by the stick of fear than the carrot of assurances. Therefore, it makes more sense to sow fear in their heart of the dire consequences of failure, such as Iran’s going forward with the completion of heavy-water reactor at Arak without any re-designing its core, and the sharp curtailment of IAEA’s access to Iran, than to simply issue comforting assurances about Iran’s non-threatening and peaceful nuclear intentions.   From the Western vantage point, what they are negotiating with Iran is nothing less than Iran’s nuclear weapons potential, which should be optimally used as a negotiation leverage vis-a-vis the Western powers, who are realists and understand the language of power.  Needless to say, this is a delicate issue that is tantamount to playing ‘borderline nuclear politics’ but one that is called for by the present circumstance of excess Western demands coupled with scant offers of sanctions relief.

3.  Counter West’s “excess demands” with counter-demands:  Notwithstanding the litany of Western “excess demands” that Iran routinely complains of publicly, it is not enough to simply reject these extra-legal and at times illogical demands, such as recent US demand to have access to Iran’s military facilities, which form a part of psychological warfare with Iran and are aimed at undermining Iran’s confidence and gaining a politico-psychological edge over Iran. Rather, Iran should go beyond mere opposition and for every excess demand level its own demand, even though it may be regarded as “illogical.” Thus, Iran could demand access to US’s nuclear tests as part of international observers, to make sure that the US is not secretly planning new nukes.  Such Iranian counter-measures have the effect of leveling the playing field.

4.  Insist on re-introducing the regional security issues in the nuclear talks:  This was the case until recently and the Geneva “Joint Plan of Action” is solely concerned with the nuclear issue, compared to the previous Western packages that included the regional security issues.  The latter have been raised on the sideline of the multilateral “5+1″ talks particularly in 2014, but in light of the gravity of regional security issues and the current focus on combating the ISIS menace, it makes sense for Iran to broaden the dialogue and re-infuse the regional dimension to the nuclear talks, as a plus since Iran plays a leading role in regional security.

5.  Give a quick deadline to the Americans for approval of the deal:  Iran should give the Obama administration no more than three to five months to adopt any final-status nuclear deal through the recalcitrant US Congress, instead of a longer leeway that could backfire since with the approaching ‘lame duck” Obama presidency, the sooner Obama acts on Congress over such a deal the better and, second, this denies the deal’s so many opponents the time to orchestrate an organized opposition.  Thus, under the gun of a quick deadline, the White House would be forced to strong arm some members of US Congress and push very hard for Congressional support, whereas if put on a slower track with a longer timeline, it may fail to do so.

This article was written by  Kaveh L. Afrasiabi for IRDiplomacy on SEP. 22, 2014.


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