How to create more fruitful negotiations between Iran and the west

Next month, Iran and the west will start a new round of negotiations regarding Iran’s ongoing nuclear programme. The author makes several suggestions as to how to make these negotiations more productive and fruitful than in the past.

Mahmoudreza Golshanpazhooh
6 April 2012

The upcoming negotiations between Iran and the 'P5+1 Group', consisting of the five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany, on Iran’s nuclear programme will begin on April 13, 2012. Between the last round of negotiations that took place in Istanbul and the upcoming one next week, significant developments have occurred that can shape the policy positions and orientations of the various negotiating parties. The US and Europe have extended the scope of sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran to compel the country to halt its nuclear activities. They have also boycotted all transactions with the Central Bank of Iran. This boycott not only applies to European and American companies, but also encompasses governments and companies around the world. Described as 'smart' sanctions, they make economic interactions between the Iranian political establishment and the outside world nearly impossible. The west believes that the impact of the embargos will ultimately lead either to the Iranian people rising up against their government or to the Iranian government deciding to abandon its nuclear programme.

The Iranian side, however, has certain trump cards on its side. Iranian scientists’ success in producing 20% enriched uranium obviates the need to import such high-grade uranium for use in its Tehran research reactor. The unprecedented increase in oil prices globally has also helped Iran. Iran's continued advancement in scientific and applied fields, such as launching research satellites into space, are another asset. Lastly, the high participation of the Iranian people (64% according to government officials) in the recent parliamentary elections held on March 2 of this year can be interpreted as a show of support for the political establishment and the values of Iran's revolution and also an indifference towards western sanctions.

Other influential factors that may shape the upcoming negotiations relate to recent developments in the Middle East and the world more generally. Foremost is the future orientation of the uprisings in the Arab world and their influence on the role of 'Islam' in the countries of the Middle East. In addition, Israel faces an unprecedentedly destabilizing situation in the region, complicating its relations with regional actors. Lastly, the growing anti-war rhetoric globally, particularly in cyberspace, and the political atmosphere and results of the upcoming US presidential election, are also important factors. All of these, however, are of secondary importance in shaping relations between Iran and the west.

In sum, the myriad developments in recent months have made the opening and atmosphere of the upcoming negotiations more complicated and uncertain. The west, trusting in the atmosphere of 'Iran-o-phobia' created by the double impact of its sanctions and its propaganda, presumes that it has the upper hand in the forthcoming negotiations. Meanwhile, Iran, for strong and justifiable reasons, increasingly distrusts the west. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to predict that the upcoming negotiations will not lead to any tangible results.

However, one can adopt a more positive view about the resolution of tensions between Iran and the west and the upcoming negotiations if one takes into account the following three points. These points suggest that it is possible to create a win-win game for both sides, Iran and the United States/Europe, and achieve a fair resolution to the nuclear dilemma.

First, the United States should abandon trying to isolate Iran from broader regional developments, and adopt a strategic approach towards the region that embraces Iran's undeniable geopolitical role. In place of the current destructive policies, the west needs to take a more holistic approach towards regional issues, utilizing the Islamic Republic of Iran's capabilities and capacities to solve regional issues in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan. As long as Iran feels threatened by the presence of 43 US bases surrounding its territory, the present vicious circle of insecurity will continue. The end result will be misunderstandings and a continued lack of trust.

Secondly, the two sides should commit themselves to signing off on an official agreement that outlines each other’s understandings of how to proceed and what was discussed. The two parties usually state that the negotiations have been constructive and will continue in the future. While such statements can have significant benefits and may include a wide range of measures that the two parties agree to implement, such declarations cannot be compared with an officially published agreement. Such an agreement may consist of just a few paragraphs that reflect the two sides’ mutual understandings of each other and their willingness to continue to promote an atmosphere of mutual understanding. If the two sides can demonstrate that the negotiations are based upon a problem-solving approach that indeed seeks a fair agreement, it can dispel the present negative atmosphere which, according to one Iranian expert, is more the result of electoral politics and the 'Iran-o-phobic' tub-thumping of weapons manufactures and media moguls than based on any reality.

Lastly, the west should reconsider the imposition of sanctions. Some American experts believe that imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran is the US government’s only option short of an outright war with Iran. President Barack Obama faces a number of factors that make war an unpalatable option, leaving sanctions as the only effective means of pressuring Iran. First of all, he is unwilling to enter another war in the region. Secondly, Obama is afraid that Israel will attack Iran and, therefore, is trying to assure the belligerents in Israel that Iran will not achieve the technology to construct a nuclear bomb. Finally, President Obama maintains that the only remaining option for dealing with Iran is a policy of sanctions that, in his view, should be so strict and restrictive that it will finally pressure Iran into submitting to the demands of the United States with regard to its nuclear activities.

However, a key point that has not been taken into account is the Iranian attitude. The United States understands that the Islamic Republic of Iran is surrounded by several nuclear states and also nearly 43 American bases. Iran, therefore, feels threatened and should be concerned about its security, and will want to try and strengthen its defense capabilities. Israel’s behaviour towards its neighbours and even the global community (for instance, its inattention to many United Nations resolutions) in the past six decades has only aggravated the situation. Add to this the risk Iran would run if it trusted the promises and commitments made by the United States or the other countries in the 'P5+1 Group,' and one begins to understand the Iranian perspective of fear and mistrust. This mistrust has been reinforced by Iran’s bitter experience with the west in managing Iran's nuclear issue during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and the subsequent modalities of implementing the plan. To add one more element to this complex matter, the Iranians also have a bitter memory of the hostile treatment by the United States and a number of European countries towards Iran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), in which the west supported President Saddam Hussein of Iraq against Iran. These circumstances hardly create the basis for Iran to trust the west.

The United States should abandon its twofold policy of making promises to Iran while at the same time threatening the country and spreading negative propaganda about Iran and promoting 'Iran-o-phobia' in the region. Such a contradictory policy will not lead to an agreement with Iran. In the most recent parliamentary election, the Iranians demonstrated that they continue to support the values of their revolution. The high voter turnout in the recent election suggests that external pressure will not lead to regime change in Iran. One should not forget that the Iranian people do not have good memories of the policies adopted by the United States and Europe in past decades. Such negative memories will not change in light of the increased threats and the pressure of sanctions on the Iranian population. If the west were to consider adopting a strategic and long term plan that establishes a calm, more trusting atmosphere in the region – an argument I made six years ago– which takes into account an unbiased view of Iran’s perspectives, perhaps this will lead to a fair settlement of the nuclear issue in the upcoming negotiations. Otherwise, there is no hope that these negotiations will yield satisfactory results for either side. 

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