This comment piece is based on ORG's report, Iran's Nuclear Impasse: Breaking the Deadlock, and was published on 23 May in the Guardian. The report was media-released and received substantial international coverage, such as on 'The Hub' (BBC Word Service Television), BBC Persian TV and BBC Persian Radio, Sky News Arabia, the Guardian, etc. Read the press release.
23 May 2012
A tone of cautious optimism has crept into the flurry of diplomatic activity taking place in the shadows ahead of the Iran nuclear talks in Baghdad on Wednesday 23 May 2012.
For once, it looks as if there is a real prospect of launching serious negotiations. There is immense pressure on these talks and should they fail, there will be a risk of an all-out war in the region.
The mood music is changing, with the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, reiterating his fatwa condemning nuclear weapons and calling them a cardinal sin. Interestingly, this coincided with the reissue of a book in Tehran on the importance of negotiation in Shia history; the final two words of the book's title are "flexibility and compromise".
In parallel, President Obama's statements have more been conciliatory in tone, emphasising diplomacy above military threats and stating that Iran had not decided to construct a nuclear weapon.
This is complemented by the statement by the Israeli chief of general staff, Benny Gantz, who said that Iran is a "rational actor" and will not produce a nuclear bomb, although there is no meeting of minds with his bosses, defence minister Ehud Barak and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
A looming deadline with a threat of new sanctions coming into effect by the end of June puts pressure on the parties to yield results. This may have contributed to the change of stance in Tehran, but trust takes much longer to build and a sustained long-term process will need to be established, not least because there will be "spoilers" who have a vested interest in seeing the talks fail.
The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, recently said: "A house can burn to the ground in minutes but takes a long time to build. Similarly, trust can easily and rapidly be broken, but it takes a long time to build, dialogue is a process and not an event."
The Oxford Research Group (ORG) recently engaged in a series of high-level consultations with individuals close to the decision-making process on the Iranian nuclear file, with the aim of finding a workable and realistic solution to the impasse. The consultation clarified the key areas of agreement that would allow for a successful negotiation between Iran and the west – see our report, Iran's Nuclear Impasse: Breaking the Deadlock.
There are now optimistic signs seeping from the official talks process: it is the first time the parties have agreed to frame the negotiations within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This matters to the Iranians as previous negotiating positions by the so-called E3+3 (Britain, France and Germany, plus the US, Russia and China) have demanded that Iran suspends uranium enrichment and this has proven an obstacle for progress in the talks.
For a successful negotiation, the E3+3 will want a clear commitment from Iran that it is not producing nuclear weapons, and assurances that the Iranian nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. This will require much wider intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in which it can be verified that Iran is a non-nuclear state.
For Iran, it will be important that its legitimate right to enrich uranium under the NPT is respected and, that a lifting of the full set of UN security council sanctions is carried out once a settlement is reached.
This will be a gradual process and a wider framework will need to be established to address the regional security issues. While there is little appetite for a "grand bargain", regional security will depend on respecting the regional security concerns of the multiple parties involved.
Driving the fear in Tehran, and of enormous importance, is the belief that the international community's real motivation is regime change. There will need to be assurances that the future of the domestic regime in Tehran is a matter for its own people.
Mirroring this fear is Israel's concern about Iran's desire not to see the survival of the Israeli state. These fears run deep and will also need to be addressed. It is these insecurities that lie behind the aggressive behaviour of both governments.
It will take time to create a climate in which the motives of the other are not viewed with suspicion and mistrust, and where proposals are not seen as tricks with the only purpose to cheat the other side, and saying "yes" is not portrayed as an admission of weakness.
Previous negotiations have been structured in such a way that meetings are piecemeal and fragmented. While technical agreements have been proposed, they broke down in the past because of the mistrust and suspicion that exists on all sides. Official processes often do not have the time to examine the nature of the relationships and therefore we need a parallel track to support negotiations to build the trust.
Because we see a regime as unfriendly, we assume the worst motives and intentions, fuelling our perception of threat. If the Pahlavi family had remained on the Peacock throne in Iran, there would probably have been as many as 20 nuclear power plants in Iran today, based on plans the Shah had drawn up with US and Europe in the 1960s. Political expediency allows our allies to do dangerous things while we chastise and punish our non-allies for doing the same.
The real challenge is now to set the frame for a serious negotiation, which builds on the area of potential common agreement, addresses both the politics and deals with the climate of mistrust. A long, hard path lies ahead, but without a sustainable process agreed and built into the negotiations it will empower those who have an interest in undermining a successful outcome.
About the Author
Gabrielle Rifkind is the Director of ORG’s Middle East programme. She is a group analyst and specialist in conflict resolution. Gabrielle combines in-depth political and psychological expertise with many years of experience in promoting serious analysis and dialogue. She has been working quietly behind the scenes with those, who have access to the decision-making process on the Iranian nuclear issue, to further the conditions for a negotiated settlement. Her special areas of interest are Iran and the Palestine-Israel conflict.