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In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs (Sep/Oct 2009), Deepak Malhotra wrote an interesting essay, “Without Conditions,” which discusses the problems with setting preconditions for diplomatic negotiations. While neither the P5+1 countries nor Iran have set actual preconditions for the Geneva talks with Iran, which Malhotra did warn against, his arguments can still be applied. Malhotra correctly suggests that:

Preconditions are appropriate only when they satisfy both criteria: the opponent is capable of meeting them, and doing so will not weaken its future leverage. Otherwise, they will serve no purpose except to create the impression that the other side has thwarted diplomatic efforts. Demands that ignore these criteria suggest either a flawed strategy or an attempt at political gamesmanship–or perhaps both.

Both sides of the upcoming talks have set implicit and mental preconditions for the talks and on themselves. Iran has refused to discuss its nuclear program, which is the 600-pound gorilla that Europe and the United States want to seriously talk about. The P5+1 countries have refused to not discuss Iran’s nuclear program, and seem to have made sanctions a moral imperative. Those positions make the results of the talks a foregone conclusion: sanctions by the West and the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program.
For political and public opinion reasons, the United States, Germany, France and Britain (four out of the six P5+1 countries) cannot allow the talks to pass by without discussing the perceived threat of Iran’s nuclear program in some sort meaningful way. It is impossible for those countries to meet Iran’s implicit demands. Due to internal pressures, a weakened Iranian government cannot concede to shut down its nuclear program. A majority of Iranians support the program, if not the government itself.
What is the point of negotiation if the parties involved refuse to discuss particular topics, or refuse to let go of issues? Negotiations should be open venues for the discussion of a variety of topics, no matter how politically sensitive. At the end of the day, Iran and the P5+1 nations know what each other ultimately desires to gain from the negotiations. Of course, if too many days pass without a concession and it appears that Iran will continue bobbing-and-weaving ad nauseam, then the United States and its allies always have the option to pull out of the talks and move onto other options.
Instead of focusing on Iran’s future ability to build a nuclear weapon, the United States and its allies could use tomorrow’s negotiations to try and remove or limit Iran’s ability to turn a weapons capability (which they already have) into a weapon itself.  Alternatively, Iran could be asked to quietly start to scale back or scrape its current ballistic missile program, which could then be used to calm Israel’s fears of a missile landing in Tel Aviv. This is a long shot certainly, and Iran would probably never agree to such a suggestion. At the least, it offers an alternative to dealing directly with Iran’s nuclear program, since Iran is not going to become a true nuclear threat for some time.
Iran and the P5+1 nations appear to have constructed blockades to true negotiation and diplomacy. They are approaching the negotiations like a competition that has a winner and a loser, and with preconceived notions of what success looks like. Negotiations, like any good compromise, should yield two losers (or two winners depending on your disposition). Any negotiations that manage to avoid war or sanctions that cripple a country’s population have not been total failures.

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