By Peter Jenkins
The US and its European partners are continuing to set stiff conditions for recognising Iran's nuclear rights and addressing issues of concern to Iran. That is the implication of the stress in recent statements on Iran 'meeting its international obligations', since it must be assumed that Western capitals believe that the UN Security Council has turned various demands made of Iran by the IAEA Board of Governors into 'international obligations' (though whether they are right to believe that can be disputed). These demands include suspending uranium enrichment work at Natanz and Qom and reactor construction at Arak, re-applying and ratifying the Additional Protocol, and transparency measures that extend beyond the formal requirements of the standard IAEA safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol. These stiff conditions make it hard to be optimistic about the P5+1/Iran talks that are due to resume later this month. Iranian spokesmen have been reiterating that they are not prepared to discuss a halt to uranium enrichment. Tehran's unwillingness to re-apply the Additional Protocol as long as Iran remains subject to UN sanctions is well-documented. And experience suggests that Iran's leaders are resilient enough to withstand the 'pressures' (sanctions) to which they have been subjected.
Back in 1981 two Harvard academics, Roger Fisher and William Ury, produced a guide to success in negotiations: Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement without Giving In. They argued against what they called 'positional bargaining' and in favour of 'principled bargaining'. The essence of principled bargaining, they maintained, is to focus on interests, not positions, and to invent options for mutual gain. Their book is still in print, over two million copies later, and their thesis has stood up well to the test of experience.
For confirmation of the sterility of positional bargaining one can do worse than study the last five years of negotiation on the Iranian nuclear issue. The West has not varied its core demands. Iran has as steadily insisted that these demands infringe Iranian rights and amount to an illegitimate elaboration of the NPT.
So a switch of approach is overdue. It is time to give principled bargaining a try.
Western negotiators would not have to look far to find areas where Iranian and Western interests overlap. Both sides have an interest in Iran addressing and resolving questions that still hang over aspects, past and present, of its nuclear programme. Both sides would benefit from measures to mitigate the fears that Iran's nuclear activities have aroused in neighbouring Arab states, as these fears could lead some of those states to seek nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons capability. (References to Saudi Arabia in the new Iranian foreign minister's first press conference suggest that this is well understood in Tehran.)
The challenge would be to give expression to these shared interests in ways that were mutually acceptable. In 2003 application of the Additional Protocol was both an obvious and a mutually acceptable way for Iran to set about accounting for 18 years of undisclosed nuclear activity. Now alternative arrangements, to allow IAEA inspectors to complete their audit, would have to be devised, as in Iran the Additional Protocol has become a symbol of Western double standards and duplicity. It would be surprising if a formula could not be found.
To mitigate fears and reduce proliferation risks negotiators could draw on past non-proliferation and US/USSR arms control practices. Nuclear weapon free zones now cover much of the Non-Aligned world. They have proved their worth as neighbourhood reassurance schemes. They do not have to be regional in extent; a variant which covered part of a region could serve as well.
Equally, arrangements for mutual reassurance through reciprocal inspections or visits have acquired a sound diplomatic pedigree. They do not depend on the elimination of all the issues that divide pairs or groups of states, or on old enemies discovering the blessings of friendship.
Of course the chances of any of this coming to pass are close to nil. As was pointed out on this site and elsewhere last month, the Obama administration appears to have lost whatever appetite it may once have had for a creative approach to the Iranian nuclear issue. Its instinct is to play safe. 'Playing safe' means sticking to well-established positions, reiterating familiar demands, offering Iran 'incentives' that Iran is bound to reject, proclaiming Iran 'intransigent' when the rejection occurs, and ratcheting up 'pressure' a further notch.
This is understandable. The average Congressperson views Iran's Islamic regime with deep suspicion and even deeper distaste; he or she would sooner engage in principled negotiation with the devil. US media comment and reporting rarely deviate from a line honed in Israel: the Islamic regime has firm plans to acquire nuclear weapons and is a mortal threat to all that Americans hold dear. Prime Minister's Putin's statement on Larry King Live on 2 December ("we do not have grounds to suspect that Iran aspires to possess nuclear weapons") seems to have passed almost unnoticed. (It is unlikely that on a matter such as this the Russian Prime Minister would be less well-informed than the President of the USA or the Prime Minister of Israel.)
Yet it is a mistake to imagine that for the US or Europe playing safe is a low-cost option. It is not. The longer a majority of Americans are left believing that Iran is a nuclear threat, the greater the risk that the White House will have to bow to pressure for extreme measures to deprive Iran of its enrichment capability. At least one of the current crop of aspirants to the Presidency would require little inducement to declare Iran guilty as charged and round up a lynching party. The likely consequences for the US and Europe of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities have been spelled out often enough for readers to need no reminder.
The same perception – that Iran is a nuclear threat – appears to be driving, at least in part, costly investments in a missile defence screen for Europe, with unhelpful implications for NATO/Russian relations. In time it may also, if left unaddressed, drive proliferation in states neighbouring Iran – the very outcome that the West has long sought to avert.
Non-Aligned support for the Western position is a pale relic of what it was in 2003. Most NAM states have come to doubt that Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. They dislike the Western emphasis on suspending or halting enrichment, because they cannot find justification for it in the NPT, because they detect a whiff of victimisation, and because they see a glaring double standard. So Western handling of Iran is not consolidating NAM support for the NPT; it is sapping it.
As the executive-director of the International Energy Agency warned in October, sanctions are hampering much-needed investment in Iran's oil and gas sectors, and this threatens global energy security and price stability. The ability of non-Western companies to make up for the absence of Western investment is uncertain. Meanwhile, in other sectors, as a result of sanctions, Western companies have lost market share to Newly Emerging competitors. The impact on employment in the West, on corporate profits and on economic growth is measurable.
Playing safe is also a lost opportunity. America's reputation has suffered over the last decade. America's moral authority – a belief in the US as a force for good – used to win respect for US leadership in most parts of the world. That stock of moral authority is now lower than it once was. The Iranian nuclear issue offers an opportunity to replenish it (and quell criticism of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee's 2009 choice). An agreement with Iran that reduced the risk of conflict and proliferation in South West Asia, in the teeth of populist American prejudice, would be seen far and wide as a fine achievement.
I am not advocating the resolution of all the West's differences with Iran. There is no reason to think that at this stage the Islamic regime is ready to recognise Israel's right to exist, or to cut off support for Hezbollah and Hamas, or to start complying with human rights obligations. I am merely making a case for taking the first steps in an incremental process, as President Nixon did when he went to China in 1972, and as President Kennedy did in negotiating the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Even if the first fruits of a 'principled' negotiation with Iran are modest, as they probably will be, a negotiation can generate significant cost savings (see above) and political gains.
Nor am I suggesting that Iran should be allowed to violate its NPT obligations. Demanding full compliance with the NPT is one position that the West may legitimately, and should, hold firmly. There needs, however, to be a better understanding that NPT obligations are not synonymous with the 'international obligations' to which Western speakers like to allude. The NPT requires Iran to accept IAEA safeguards on all source or special fissionable material in its possession, and to refrain from the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices. It does not require Iran to refrain from enriching uranium or to abandon construction of heavy water reactors. It requires Iran to re-apply Code 3.1 of its Subsidiary Arrangement; it does not require Iran to re-apply the Additional Protocol or implement exceptional transparency measures.
Finally, I am not proposing that the West drop its guard. On the contrary the West should maintain all the measures that are in place to complicate Iran's acquisition of nuclear and ballistic missile technology (just as it did after taking the first steps towards détente with Russia and China). The US should continue to extend protection to any state that feels threatened by Iran. And Iran's leaders should have impressed upon them that, were evidence to emerge that they were attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, all but a handful of states would be united in making them regret their folly.
* Peter Jenkins is a partner in ADRgAmbassadors, an international dispute resolution partnership, and a former member of the British diplomatic service who served as the United Kingdom's Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2001 to 2006 – a critical period in the development of the Iranian nuclear issue.
** This article was first published in raceforiran.com