Last Chance Saloon with Iran?
Image Credit: Daniella Zalcman

Last Chance Saloon with Iran?


Former top Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian’s article in the Boston Globe last month Real Solutions To Nuclear Deadlock With Iran” – presents an opportunity to begin a more focused debate over the question of what can be achieved at this stage in negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran regarding its nuclear ambitions. The situation is currently close to boiling point, and the upcoming talks – planned to take place at the end of this week in Istanbul – could be the last chance to defuse a critical situation.

In essence, what Mousavian suggests is a phased approach to the resolution of the conflict, where in each phase, concessions are made by both the Iranians and their counterparts with an eye on achieving the bottom line that would ultimately be acceptable to each. This approach seems reasonable, both in stressing the need to define acceptable bottom lines and because unfortunately, at this late stage, there’s little reason to expect an immediate reversal on the part of Iran. Cautious, incremental steps are therefore probably the best way to go. However, these steps must embody concrete achievements very early on, or a crisis could erupt.

The current dynamic between Iran and the international community has a long history, and the upcoming round of negotiations can’t be divorced from the experience of almost ten years of diplomatic efforts to get Iran to back away from its military nuclear ambitions. In every previous round, Iran has used a diplomatic setting to play for time, rather than to negotiate in earnest, and the haggling over the venue could be an indication this trend is likely to continue. Although Mousavian says that “since 2003 Iran has been looking for a viable and durable solution to the diplomatic standoff,” there’s little evidence to support such a conclusion.

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Against this backdrop, a central question is what accounts for the fact that this time, there’s a greater sense of potential than in the past?

There can be little doubt that the demonstrated seriousness of the international community – the United States and EU in particular – with regard to sanctions is a major factor behind the change. Assessments are that the Iranians are feeling the heat of biting sanctions, and something has perhaps changed in terms of their willingness to seek a negotiated outcome. The increased threats of military consequences are another important component of the recent pressure on Iran. This pressure isn’t a separate track from diplomacy – it’s the necessary first stage of a potentially more effective negotiation. Without serious and ongoing pressure, Iran’s rational choice would be to proceed unilaterally to its goal of a military capability.

Herein lies the major problem with Mousavian’s phased approach, which hinges not only on the reduction of sanctions, but doing so in reverse order of harshness. In other words, he suggests suspending the most crippling sanctions in the first stage, and then proceeding step-by-step to the least problematic sanctions from Iran’s point of view, namely, the U.N.-based sanctions. Iran’s interest in immediately getting the harshest sanctions suspended is obvious, but because of the central role of sanctions in getting Iran to be more serious, and the difficulty involved in getting them in place, it would be a poor negotiating strategy for the P5+1 to release this pressure before they have a firm indication that Iran has altered its approach and concrete progress has been made. This is the international community’s strongest card in a difficult and unbalanced bargaining situation. The ten year experience of not negotiating in good faith means that Iran must prove that it’s serious about reaching a deal that in essence will mean giving up on its goal of achieving a military capability in the nuclear realm.

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