September 12, 2012

Experts Assess Lessons Learned and Path Forward for Iran Talks

Wilson Center panel
Washington, DC – The question placed before Michael Adler, Monica Herz, Mustafa Kibaroglu and Trita Parsi at the Wilson International Center for Scholars, “Will the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran yield better results than past efforts?” is laced with disappointment. Throughout the session, a continuation of a previous panel discussing the “Tehran Declaration” brokered in 2010 by Brazil, Turkey and Iran but ultimately rejected by the United States, the presenters responded to the failures of the past by illuminating mistaken tactics and proposed possible paths of success going forward.

While the panelists all alluded to the difficulty of the present diplomatic situation, Dr. Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, did so most starkly. “We’re seeing now that we have, in Iran, more 20% enriched uranium, more cascades and centrifuges in the Fordow plant, more low enriched uranium and at the same time on the Iranians we have far more sanctions, including sanctions that…are starting to create a humanitarian situation inside that country,” Parsi observed. “Overall, it doesn’t seem like anyone is winning. It certainly seems like both sides are losing.”

This situation, Parsi explained, could have been avoided at several junctures in the past. He explained that domestic political infighting “after the fraudulent elections of 2009” caused Iran to abandon a deal in October of that year. But that pattern continued, he said,  “in 2010, when the United States rejected a deal that it itself had instructed (former President of Brazil) Lula and (Prime Minister of Turkey) Erdogan to go to Iran and negotiate.” The Obama administration’s decision, like the Iranian government’s 2009 decision, was based on the perceived domestic repercussions of the deal, Parsi said, and demonstrate that “it’s not the technicality of this that makes it complex, it’s the politics of it that makes it complex. “

Dr. Kibaroglu, Chair of the International Relations Department and Director of the Center of Eurasian Studies at Okan University in Istanbul, and Dr. Herz, Associate Professor at Catholic University of Rio De Janeiro, both expressed disappointment with the failure of the 2010 deal. Herz presented it as a lost opportunity and said the  Rouseff administration that replaced Lula in Brazil has since pulled away from Iran, citing human rights concerns and growing bonds with the United States. Brazil, however, does still has a significant interest in assuring that all countries have access to peaceful nuclear technology, according to Herz. 

For Dr. Kibaroglu, however, the current political difficulties and the near success of 2010 justify the inclusion Turkey in the negotiations—turning the P5+1 negotiations (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) into a P5+1+1.  Ankara “can understand both sides better than they understand each other,” argued Kibaroglu. “Turkey could not only be a facilitator, but a good mediator as well as contributor to the final solution.”

Dr. Parsi acknowledged the “very critical and constructive role” that Turkey played in 2010, but he explained that “the Iranian government’s support of Assad and the Turkish government’s opposition to Assad” reduces Ankara’s ability to be an effective mediator. Adler, Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center agreed, but declared the point moot because of disapproval of such a proposal by the United States.

The panelists all argued that large shifts need to be made in the negotiating positions of Iran and the United States in order for progress to be made. Dr. Parsi recommended that future negotiations should be based on principles established during the April 2012 meetings in Istanbul. Specifically, he commended “the principles of reciprocity, and that there would be a step-by-step process, and that the reciprocity would be following proportionality, meaning that if the United States were to offer an irreversible concession, the Iranians would have to respond that by offering an irreversible concession of their own.” The subsequent unsuccessful negotiations in Moscow and Baghdad, he said, were the result of a failure to hold to these principles on both sides.

Additionally, lack of clarity regarding the endpoint of negotiations undercut those meetings, according to Adler.  He elaborated that “The UN Security Council resolutions are calling on Iran to suspend enrichment. But then the big question is, ‘When we get to the end of the process, will Iran still be able to enrich, and how will that work out?’”

Going forward, Adler recommended increased flexibility in the negotiating patterns of the two parties, recommending that “discussions that aren’t oriented towards results but just to feel out positions, to feel out how each side could help the other and talk to each other” would be a good starting point. “My big advice to the US diplomats was, ‘Just sit down with them, have tea, and say, this morning we’re not going to talk about the nuclear issue, how’s your family?’” he continued.              

Dr. Parsi similarly pushed for flexibility, but focused on the aims of the negotiators. “None of these major deals that have been struck, whether it was the Good Friday agreement, or when Libya gave up its nuclear program, have necessarily been perfect or flawless,” he said. “Expecting the perfect deal to emerge from either side is a guarantee for failure.”




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