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11 Nov. 2013: Time for a more comprehensive approach to the Iran nuclear negotiations

The latest round of negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the 'P5+1' states) once again failed to reach an agreement on interim steps toward resolving the long-running controversy over the future of Iran's nuclear programme. In the end, the talks faltered due to disputes over technical aspects of Iran's nuclear programme and the sequencing of sanctions relief, leaving the negotiators unable to conclude a much-anticipated deal. The last-minute derailment of the negotiations suggests that a new, more comprehensive approach is needed to break the current stalemate and finally resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Will the first step be the last step?

Expectations of an imminent diplomatic breakthrough had been raised when foreign ministers from five of the countries joined in eleventh-hour negotiations on a deal that would have required Iran to suspend parts of its nuclear programme in exchange for partial relief from international economic sanctions.

The failure of the parties to reach an agreement comes as something of an anti-climax in light of the expectations that had built up during the meeting. What should be kept in mind, however, is that the latest talks were about short-term suspension and sanctions-relief measures, envisioned to last for six months, and not a long-term final deal about the future of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Herein lies a key shortcoming of the Geneva talks: namely, they have been focused on first steps in the absence of a common understanding among the parties about where the subsequent steps should ultimately lead. This raises the risk, or even the likelihood, that a modest interim agreement may turn out to be the only agreement reached if the negotiations later collapse over more permanent arrangements.

Reaching an agreement between the parties will be politically difficult

The prospect of the talks building up to a breakdown suggests that the Geneva negotiators need to give priority to putting in place a more comprehensive framework agreement—one that lays out an explicit diplomatic end-game accepted by all parties. As many observers have noted, this is an exercise that is fraught with political difficulties. Any plausible long-term deal will require Iran to recognize that it will not be able to push ahead with an unconstrained nuclear programme. While the specific limitations would be determined through intensive negotiation, the United States and its allies would almost certainly insist that Iran dismantle a significant number of its current 19 000 uranium enrichment centrifuges, including the new advanced model being installed at Natanz, and to mothball the heavy-water nuclear reactor under construction at Arak.

At the same time, the USA and its allies will have to accept that under any plausible deal Iran will not agree to give up all of its nuclear fuel cycle activities and, in particular, that it will insist on retaining a uranium enrichment programme in some form. This would not imply a recognition by these states of Iran’s claimed legal ‘right’ to enrich uranium. Rather, it would be an acknowledgement of political reality inside Iran, where the nuclear programme enjoys support across the ideological spectrum as a symbol of national pride and Islamic modernity in spite of debilitating international sanctions. As the just-concluded talks in Geneva have illustrated, this will be a difficult pill for the Americans and Europeans to swallow.

The need for a bolder diplomatic vision

The deep mistrust and suspicion between Iran, on the one hand, and the USA and the European Union partners, on the other, makes the task of agreeing on a comprehensive approach for settling the nuclear issue especially challenging. Against this backdrop, perhaps the main positive outcomes of the Geneva meeting were the upbeat assessments offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who both noted that the talks had contributed to increasing mutual confidence and trust between the parties even if they did not resolve their long-standing differences. This gives a useful boost to the expert-level discussions now underway about possible transparency and confidence-building measures envisioned as the next step towards reaching a final deal. It also helps to set the stage for the upcoming round in the separate but parallel discussions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Iranian nuclear activities with possible military dimensions.

It remains to be seen whether the generally conciliatory tone and atmosphere at the talks in Geneva will translate into an agreement committing the parties to concrete action. While a deal on even a modest set of interim measures would be a welcome first step, the parties must take care that this does not inadvertently become a last step because of misaligned incentives and incompatible goals for the nuclear end-game. What is needed now is a bolder diplomatic vision that will lead the way out of the current stalemate by charting an agreed comprehensive strategy for a long-term settlement of the nuclear issue.



Shannon N. Kile is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.