Event Recap: Mind the Gap on Negotiations with Iran

Feb 1, 2013

By Meggaen Neely
Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday, “I don’t think the window can remain open for too much longer” on negotiations with Iran. Given that negotiations have occurred for over a decade, one wonders if a diplomatic solution can be reached.
This conundrum was discussed at an event hosted by the Wilson Center on January 24 in Washington, D.C. The panel included Fatemeh Haghighatjoo and Seyed Aliakbar Mousavi, two Iranians and former parliamentarians. The parliamentarians were joined by: George Perkovich, Director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Jim Walsh, research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Robert Litwak, director of the International Security Studies at the Wilson Center.
The panelists discussed the Iranian parliamentarians’ letter to United States and Iranian officials, which proposed a diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear program. Mousavi focused on two details he deemed necessary to any agreement. First, the United States should recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium up to 5 percent, a level that does not allow a state to build a nuclear weapon. Mousavi cited Article IV of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), a treaty to which Iran is a member, as the basis for this right “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Second, a timetable should be set by which the sanctions on Iran can be lifted.
Haghighatjoo explained that the time is right for reaching this agreement. Barack Obama won a second term as president, and has expressed willingness to engage in bilateral talks with Iran. Also, the sanctions imposed on Iran by an international coalition have crippled the Iranian government and people, encouraging the government to negotiate. She proposed that Mousavi’s agreement be discussed directly between President Obama and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei.
On the issue of democracy, Haghighatjoo stated that parliament members are “part of the democratic forces” in Iran. The status quo would not allow for democracy to happen; but, if Iran’s nuclear program can be resolved, Haghighatjoo argued this would “open up the atmosphere” to let democratic forces work in the country.
American representatives spoke next. While admitting the importance of bilateral talks at the leadership level, Perkovich questioned whether the Supreme Leader wants dialogue. He challenged the “right” to enrich at 5%, claiming it remains an unspecified question in the NPT. With regard to negotiations, Perkovich explained that opening with an agreement to enrich at 5% allows the Iranians to walk away without addressing international concerns: the issue of Iran’s potential development of a nuclear weapon must still be resolved by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA). Iran cannot focus solely on enrichment levels. Finally, Perkovich highlighted the issue of precedence: an agreement reached with Iran must be tolerated as an acceptable precedent for any country.
Litwak added that any concession in Article IV of the NPT does not trump the expectations outlined in Article II: “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes […] not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Even if a nuclear deal could be reached, Litwak wondered if this has implications for the Iranian regime’s survival. Can the Supreme Leader accept a “yes”?
To break the historical deadlock, Walsh called for one side to “do something the other doesn’t expect, to break expectations.” But, which side should take the initiative? Walsh hinted that it should be the United States.
If this panel is any indication of the dialogue between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), then there is a gap between the level at which Iran is willing to cooperate and the nature of Iranian activity that the United States will find tolerable. Although we hear that “all options are on the table,” it seems that both the United States and Iran negotiate from the perspective that their desired outcome is the only acceptable solution.
Given the potential stakes – i.e., Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon – this might be inevitable. If neither side changes their position in negotiations, though, then a change in leadership will not be able to produce a diplomatic solution. Sanctions alone have yet to prove their effectiveness in deterring unwanted behavior. It might be time to look into other options or to consider dealing with a nuclear Iran. 
Meggaen Neely is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.