Washington, DC – “[More sanctions] are going to complicate the negotiation process,” said Mohsen Milani, Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies, speaking on the first panel at the 2013 NIAC Leadership Conference. “Those in Iran who are suspicious of American intentions will become more suspicious. Any kind of sanctions at this time when they are testing each other’s intentions would be harmful to peaceful negotiations.”
With the Iran and P5+1 nuclear negotiations in Geneva underway, the panel examined the obstacles and opportunities ahead in the new diplomatic process.
Joining Milani was Giandomenico Picco, former Undersecretary General of the United Nations, who has engaged in several successful negotiations with Iran in previous roles. “Over the last thirty years, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the West have been involved in negotiations at least twelve times.” Of these twelve negotiations, one of particular importance was the United States and Iran’s agreement in 2001 to reinvent Afghanistan in the face of a direct U.S. presence in the region, which Dr. Picco views as the “greatest agreement between the two countries.” Picco added that there were twelve major negotiations between the U.S. and Iran and “eleven were successful. Nobody seems to remember this.”
Dr. Picco had several words of praise for Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who is now leading the nuclear talks. He credited prior successful negotiations, including the United States and Iran’s cooperation in Afghanistan before and after the U.S. invasion in 2001, to Zarif’s direct involvement. “You do not negotiate with a country,” said Picco, “you negotiate with the persons in front of you.”
“I think today that I can say with a great deal of confidence the Rouhani administration is the best possible government that the Islamic Republic of Iran can produce,” observed Milani. “And if the U.S. government cannot deal with this kind of the government, then it cannot deal with any kind of government (under the Islamic Republic).”
Former Assistant Secretary for Defense Colin Kahl also spoke on the panel. “We are at a diplomatic inflection point,” he noted, adding, “[t]here is an Iranian team that is both talented but I think also committed to try and find some way to reach an accommodation on the nuclear file. I think we also have an administration in Washington that is open to diplomacy, although clear-eyed as to the requirements of success.”
According to Dr. Kahl, there are several things that Iran could offer at the negotiating table to fulfill this good faith requirement, including capping nuclear enrichment at five percent, the level sufficient for civilian nuclear power; reducing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, whether through conversion or exportation to a third party; setting limitations on the number of centrifuges it holds at any time; re-implementing the Additional Protocol so that the International Atomic Energy Agency can visit certain facilities to ensure Iran is not secretly pursuing a nuclear weapon; and either halting construction of the offline Arak heavy water nuclear reactor or converting it to a light water reactor.
What is less clear is what the United States would be willing to give up, including sanctions relief, for Iranian concessions. Dr. Kahl said that the Obama Administration does have the capacity to provide meaningful sanctions relief if the Iranians can show that they are willing to work in good faith and prove that their nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
However, though the initial reports out of Geneva meeting were highly optimistic, with Iran presenting a clear proposal for resolving the nuclear standoff and a follow on round of negotiations scheduled for November 7 and 8, the panelists were careful to acknowledge the tough road ahead. “We have had 33 years of mutual demonization. We have had 33 years of animosity and hostility between Iran and the United States,” said Dr. Milani. “One cannot expect that relationship to be improved quickly. We should understand that it’s going to take a long time for that relationship to reach a level where it has become normal.”