This article is part of our securities studies research agenda series.
Optimism regarding nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States and Germany) and Iran has come and gone, and now the familiar drums of war are beating again. The latest round of negotiations initiated little over three months ago seems to have once again stalled. Doves and hawks alike, from lead European negotiator Catherine Ashton to Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, are announcing that the time for negotiations is short and receding. Crippling economic sanctions are taking their toll on Iran’s economy and covert cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program have forced Iranian Government agencies off the internet. But, still, Iran does not look ready to give into Western demands and suspend its enrichment activities.
In explaining this stalemate, there’s quite a bit of blame to go around. As we have argued elsewhere at some length, the failure of recent negotiations is not attributable solely to Iranian intransigence, but also, and crucially, to Western negotiating positions that have been both ill advised and counterproductive. In fact, negotiations have never been given a real chance to succeed by either side. In the first phases of negotiations in the 2003-5 period, Europeans countries were mildly hopeful that negotiations could succeed, but opposition from key neoconservatives in the Bush administration seriously hampered their efforts. As reported in a new book by David Crist, the Bush administration failed to act on successive opportunities to improve relations with Tehran. Even Obama, who supposedly came into office proposing to turn a new leaf in US-Iran relations, approached negotiations as “a single roll of the dice”. Indeed, as soon as the Iranian Government failed to reciprocate what Obama saw as a genuine cooperative move, the United States retreated back into a strategy of coercive diplomacy. Even if the President had wanted to make additional conciliatory moves, he had hardliners in Congress constantly pushing his administration to adopt ever-tougher measures. Adding to that pressure was Israel and the threat – sometimes hidden sometimes explicit – that if the pressure was not ratcheted up against Tehran, then Jerusalem might act unilaterally to stop its nuclear programme.
Peter Jenkins, a former British Ambassador to the IAEA recently lamented that Iran stopped complying with the IAEA Additional Protocol before inspectors had a chance to proclaim their program clean of “undeclared nuclear activities or material”. The problem is that to believe, as Jenkins does, that such a declaration would have mitigated the nuclear crisis is to forget that conservatives in Washington and Israeli leaders don’t exactly hold the norms and rules of international organisations like the IAEA in the highest regard. They are simply not persuaded that these institutions can safeguard US and Israeli security in the face of what these groups perceive as the potential existential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Moreover, nor are they shy about their dreams of regime change in Tehran; in fact, they see this as the only long-term guarantee of US and Israeli security. The West demands that Iran fully and indefinitely suspend its enrichment activities, but there are political leaders in the Iranian national security decision-making process, including the Supreme Leader himself, who worry that any major Iranian concession on the nuclear issue would simply whet the appetite of those in the United States and Israel seeking regime change. Consequently, it is hard to see any Iranian leader, even those from the moderate wing of Iranian politics, making the kind of concessions that would end the nuclear crisis. Even if a moderate is elected in the 2013 presidential elections, he would have to calculate how far any concessions would jeopardize his political survival
Negotiations can only work if both sides are open to the possibility that a mutually agreed solution is possible and will be adhered to. Neither side has done a good job of convincing the other of this. For the past ten years, alarmists have declared vehemently that time is short and should not be wasted on negotiations. Moderates seem almost ready to give up. But this would be a tragic move, not because negotiations stand a chance of succeeding given the dominant mind-sets shaping policy on both sides, but because they are the only thing that stands a chance of preventing the worst possible outcome: war.