The first round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries – the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany – concluded in Istanbul with a rare expression of optimism and satisfaction by both sides. The two sides agreed to resume their negotiations next month in Baghdad.
There were several indications over the past few months that the new round of nuclear talks between Iran the P5+1 countries was going to be different from Istanbul’s January 2011 talks. The letter of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to his European counterpart Catherine Ashton on February 14 provided the main grounds for such optimism. Unlike some of his previous communications, he refrained from using any language that would give the impression of non-negotiability to any aspect of Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities.
The cautious optimism expressed soon thereafter by both U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton on Jalili’s letter at their joint meeting in Washington further strengthened such expectations. More recently, Iranian officials also expressed hope that the new nuclear talks would mark a step forward in resolving the remaining issues between the two parties. In a rare act of public diplomacy by an Iranian political official, Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi published an opinion article in The Washington Post two days before the nuclear negotiators were to meet in Istanbul, emphasizing the need for building mutual trust between Iran and the United States while advising the parties to have realistic expectations, since outstanding differences between the parties cannot be bridged overnight.
Although neither side has yet to agree on specific concrete measures aimed at building mutual confidence, the chief nuclear negotiators were able to agree on a general framework founded on reciprocity and a step-by-step approach as guiding principles of their future negotiations. They also took into account the rights and obligations of all parties under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iranian officials have made it clear that the next rounds of talks should also aim at removing the unilateral Western oil and financial sanctions on Iran. Although these sanctions have been crippling, Iran will not necessarily negotiate from a position of weakness in future talks with the West. In fact, it is a general belief among Iranian officials that Iran is in a stronger position compared to the previous talks held in Istanbul. As the head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian parliament Alaeddin Boroujerdi recently stated, Iran’s success in enriching uranium to a 20-percent level and producing its own nuclear fuel for the Tehran research reactor, as well as its improved internal political stability since the disputed June 2009 presidential elections, have all increased Iran’s bargaining power vis-à-vis Western powers compared to the previous round of talks in January 2011.
Major hurdles lie on the path to reaching a lasting solution to Iran’s nuclear issue. Like any other negotiation, setting unrealistic goals will kill off any chance for a compromise between the two parties. Determining the negotiating baseline of the other party is not always a straightforward task, and the parties may end up miscalculating the capacity of the other party for compromise.
For instance, the West may be misreading Iran’s potential for compromise on its nuclear issue in next round of talks. Catherine Ashton’s March 6, 2012 letter to Saeed Jalili provided the first signs of such a possible miscalculation. Highlighting the need for confidence-building measures in the upcoming talks, Ashton wrote, “these confidence-building steps should form first elements of a phased approach which would eventually lead to a full settlement between us, involving the full implementation by Iran of UNSC and IAEA Board of Governors’ resolutions.” In this letter, Ashton sets “the full implementation of UNSC resolutions” by Iran as the ultimate goal of future nuclear talks with Iran, thus ignoring the fact that Iran considers the UNSC resolutions — which call for the suspension of nuclear enrichment and other related activities by Iran — to violate its obvious and fundamental rights under the NPT. If Ashton’s statement truly represents the baseline of the negotiating position of the West and is not just a negotiating tactic, the talks will risk failure.
Failure to give equal weight to the concerns of the other party may undermine the chances for a successful negotation. Despite some lip service paid to the principles of mutual respect and equality, practical commitment to these principles is largely lacking in the official discourse of Western officials toward Iran.
Ashton’s recent remarks about Iran at a press conference in Istanbul represent a general mindset among Western officials that is in part responsible for the mistrust and hostility that has marked the relationship between Iran and the West over the past three decades. In her interview, Ashton stated that the Istanbul talks is “an important opportunity for Iran to discuss with the E3 +3 to try and find ways through our concerns about the nuclear weapons program that we believe Iran is moving towards.” She continued: “What we are here to do is to find ways in which we can build confidence between us and ways in which we can demonstrate that Iran is moving away from a nuclear weapons program." In these controversial remarks, Ashton not only took it for granted that Iran possesses a nuclear weapons program, an accusation which the IAEA has not been able to verify despite years of intensive and rigorous inspection and investigation, but also implicitly likens the negotiations to a virtual tribunal where Iran would have to answer Western concerns.
Imbalance of Power
The language and demeanor adopted by Western officials toward Iran reflect the material power disparity between Iran and the Western powers. Such an approach has characterized the relationships of unequal powers since the beginning of history. Yet it is simply anachronous in the 21st century to allow the language of diplomatic communications to be reduced to such paternalism, which creates resistance and resentment in a proud nation like Iran. Iran prides itself for its pioneering history in art, science, and literature, a fact that has deeply influenced Iran’s relations with other states.
True, many Iranian officials also have a lot to learn about how to properly address Western audiences. But more than 30 years after the Iranian revolution, Western officials have not yet developed a solid understanding of how to properly and effectively communicate with their Iranian counterparts.
For instance, it should have been evident from very early on that any explicit or implicit display of superiority would put off high Iranian political officials. While describing the talks as constructive and positive, for example, Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili countered Ashton’s language of superiority by stating that the West should restore the trust of the Iranian nation as part of the ongoing nuclear talks between the two parties. Similarly, the Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi used the phrases “mutual respect” and “as equals” seven times in his recent short opinion article in The Washington Post, which also demonstrates Iranian obsession with equality in interstate relations.
Given the deep roots of principles of equality and mutual respect in the post-revolutionary political culture of Iran, the success of future nuclear talks between Iran and the West will depend in part on whether the West is able to treat Iran as an equal in word as well as in deed.