19 April 2012
Richard Dalton
Sir Richard Dalton
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Two words stand out from the reporting of the recently concluded Iranian negotiations: constructive and useful. Six further words attributed to a Western diplomat tell of the relief experienced by the teams: 'No dramatic breakthroughs. No unpleasant surprises'. The Iranian negotiator went further. The talks were 'very successful'.

Given the depth of mutual distrust, it is a significant achievement for Iran and the Six countries negotiating with them to have launched a serious dialogue on a peaceful negotiated solution. 

Iran will have to decide whether it will go beyond exploring the positions of the other side to actually deliver on transparency, scrutiny and limits on its freedom of action.

The Six western countries have to craft a negotiating strategy that will start building trust and will end with a permanently reduced risk of Iran ever building nuclear weapons. 

A Change from Iran?

Iran has dropped the preconditions that wrecked the last talks in January 2011 for four main reasons. 

The leadership decided around August 2011 that they should resolve the outstanding concerns of the IAEA secretariat and its members that there had been many, and still could be some, military dimensions to its nuclear activities. Second, they have made significant, bankable progress in their nuclear endeavours despite sanctions, including getting much closer to weapons capability.

Third, the sanctions have hurt their economy and prejudiced domestic quiet much more than they had anticipated. Last, the pragmatic reflex in Iran has never been eclipsed - to use diplomacy to work around obstacles that cannot be shifted by full-frontal defiance. 

Perhaps they decided too that they should no longer take punishment for something they are not doing at present - going for a bomb. Even intelligence services hostile to them say they are not doing that.

A More Receptive Six?

On the other side, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated publicly that Iran could expect to be able to enrich uranium once it was in good standing with the IAEA and had assured the world of the exclusively peaceful nature of its programmes. President Obama renewed some of his 2009 language implying respect for the Islamic Republic in a private message to Ayatollah Khamenei. He ended years of uncertainty when he stated during Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to Washington that it was the bomb, not the capability to make one that was the US red line. He also made it clear that he would not give Israel a green light to attack Iran in current circumstances.

The Six appear to have improved their tactics by down-playing their demand for compliance with the UN Security Council requirements that Iran suspends all enrichment and the construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor. Their statement said that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was 'a' key basis. The Iranians would no doubt have preferred 'the' key basis, but it is still a new point of emphasis for the Six that will make it easier to find common ground with Iran.

Other good words came in the statement by Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, including 'step by step', the matters to be negotiated are far too complex, and the doubts of each about the true intentions of the other are so profound, that proceeding by verified phases is essential. And not just for the negotiators: the US and Iran both have difficult domestic political situations. They have to convince their respective naysayers.

Even better is 'reciprocity'. Although little appeared in the media in advance of the talks about what Iran might get if it changed its policy, it is obvious that the Six have known for some time that - to quote another official speaking at the margin of the talks: 'We will have to be credible too'. Simply holding at Iran's head a gun in one hand and the power to impoverish Iranians in the other was never going to save the NPT, avert war, reassure neighbours and keep oil flowing.

Next Steps

It will be very tough turning these preliminary moves into a deal. For the Six, the first requirement is to recognize in practise that distrust is two-way. They must be seen to negotiate in good-faith on nuclear issues and not to hold regime change up their sleeves. 

Second, they must temper their preference for caution by giving Iran a picture at the outset, in secret, of what a successful outcome could look like. Elements should include: satisfying the IAEA that Iran's declarations of nuclear material are correct and complete, enrichment for peaceful purposes in Iran matching output of low-enriched uranium to Iran's future civil reactor building programme, limitation of the percentage level of future enrichment, and enhanced surveillance of Iran's activities. In return, Iran should get progressive lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions and - a word dear to Iran which appeared in the statements after the Istanbul talks – 'cooperation', relating to nuclear developments. 

Third, nuclear arrangements negotiated between the parties and with the IAEA are a necessary but insufficient condition for complete success. Regional political and security-related concerns must be addressed in order to start reducing the gulf between the US, Israel and the GCC states, and Iran. If in due course Iran and the US can start their own bilateral track, so much the better.

Next, dialogue must be given time. It should be possible to work out a first step based on the much-discussed end of 20% enrichment in return for cooperation over fuel supply for the Tehran Research Reactor. But talk of a final and closing window for talks is unrealistic: the US simply cannot go far enough for a deal during an election campaign. A full year will be needed. 

Fifth, the dialogue must be sustained at a much higher intensity than hitherto. Between December 2004 and June 2005 the UK, France and Germany were in regular meetings with Iran on cooperation, security and nuclear questions to clear the ground for what became the 2005 E3 proposal to Iran. That is the model – not the once or twice a year sessions that followed that failure. 

Tensions in the Gulf will now subside for a period of months at least. Diplomacy has a serious chance of success. Strong leadership is needed on both sides to turn a beginning into promising first agreements, and later into a permanent resolution.