A possible shift to US-Iranian talks — what’s on the table?

A possible shift to US-Iranian talks — what’s on the table?

If bilateral negotiations are indeed underway, Washington should be clear: military force is a real option

Iranian technicians work at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in 2010 (photo credit: AP/IIPA, Ebrahim Norouzi)
Iranian technicians work at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in 2010 (photo credit: AP/IIPA, Ebrahim Norouzi)

Last month’s report in The New York Times revealing that the US and Iran had secretly reached an agreement to hold bilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program after the US elections came as a surprise, in terms of both timing and substance. The news raises many questions regarding both the political and substantive implications.

On the political front, coming two weeks ahead of the US presidential elections, one cannot avoid asking whether there was a campaign message to be found in the report, and if so, what that message was. Was this something that would help the Obama campaign or hurt it? The ensuing public debate demonstrated that a case could be made for either interpretation.

The article itself maintained that the news of a possible breakthrough could help Obama, with the US being, as it were, on the verge of a deal. But it could equally make him look weak, especially for those who have given up on diplomacy in the face of repeated failures, and view another round of negotiations as simply granting more time to Iran to push its program forward. A senior Iranian legislator claimed that the article served Obama’s campaign, which sought to demonstrate that sanctions worked and had forced Iran to negotiate with the superpower. This statement also shows that Iran is not necessarily of a single mind on this issue.

If Iran can talk to the ‘Great Satan’ can it speak to the ‘Little Satan’ as well?

It should be clear that in one sense this report was no surprise at all, and that is with regard to the possibility of another round of talks with Iran after the US presidential elections. The assumption was that this would happen, but in the framework of talks between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, known as P5+1. So the real question is not what is new about another round of negotiations, but rather, what is new about the idea of bilateral US-Iranian talks, which is what Obama had offered Iran quite openly in 2009, but was rebuffed. Since then, Obama willingly embraced the P5+1 format as being very much in tune with his multilateral approach to foreign policy.

It is important to clearly set forth questions that must be addressed by the US administration after the elections, if a decision is made to proceed with bilateral talks. The following deserve particular attention:

1. Would US-Iran negotiations replace P5+1-Iran negotiations or would both frameworks continue in parallel? If both, what would be their respective mandates?

2. If bilateral talks replace the P5+1 format, how would they differ? Would they be limited to the nuclear issue or would all bilateral issues be placed on the table at this very late stage? Would the broader global issues, such as human rights, figure in the talks? If the idea is to conduct a dialogue on a broader range of issues, how would the pressing nuclear issue figure in? Would it be tied to a regional deal, as seems to be Iran’s preference, and if so, how would other regional players be expected to react to this option?

3. How would the shift to a bilateral framework influence the negotiations dynamic? Would it improve the ability of the US to negotiate effectively, in the sense that the US would not have to deal with five additional partners that do not see eye to eye on Iran’s nuclear program, or would it perhaps weaken the US hand by implicitly empowering Iran with a “superpower to superpower” dialogue structure?

4. What about the other P5+1 partners? Would they be happy to drop the “hot potato” called Iran’s nuclear program, or would they feel that they are by now heavily invested in this negotiation, and not willing to simply turn it over to the Americans? The answer here would have to relate separately to the European partners, Russia and China, as they are not necessarily of one opinion. Is there a possibility that Iran would in parallel turn to Russia and China as potential counter-partners to reduce US pressure?

5. Finally, what about Israel? If Iran can talk to the “Great Satan” can it speak to the “Little Satan” as well? Moreover, will the US continue to abide by its commitments to Israel on the nuclear issue, and not leave Iran with any potential to become a nuclear state.

Although perhaps not a fully comprehensive list, because of the complexity of the issues, the questions raised here relate to important issues that must be clarified before a more fruitful bilateral negotiation can be initiated.

If used wisely, and with the intention of bringing things to a head, the US could ‘lay down the law’ and insist that Iran make a choice

Of course, an additional set of questions goes to the parameters of a potential deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and the concessions that each side would be willing to make. Here we come back to familiar questions relating to Iranian concessions with regard to missile development, verification, enrichment to 20 percent and above, adherence to the UN resolutions, and closure of the Fordo nuclear facility. There is also a question of what the US would concede in terms of sanctions reductions.

A key issue is whether there are indications that Iran would finally be serious about negotiations in a round that took place in late November or early December. Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence and the director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, has in the past emphasized the importance of tailoring a good bargain that would be an acceptable solution to the current impasse, and avoiding a bad one. As Dennis Ross has recently suggested, the US might be thinking about presenting a full end-game proposal to Iran, as a last chance offer that would test whether Iran is serious or not. He has noted that negotiations up to this point have gotten bogged down in an incremental approach, and there is no longer time for these step-by-step efforts.

Such a US proposal might offer Iran a limited nuclear energy program, but place it under strict inspection and verification. The US might insist that Iran first suspend and then dismantle its uranium enrichment program. If used wisely, and with the intention of bringing things to a head, the US could “lay down the law” and insist that Iran make a choice. To succeed, the next administration would have to be fiercely determined, and clarify that the alternative will be military force. The prospects of success would likely improve if talks are carried out far from the public eye.


Dr. Emily B. Landau is Director of the Arms Control program at INSS, and the author of “Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation.” Dr. Ephraim Asculai is a senior research associates at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University.

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