Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Gabrielle Rifkind, Paul Ingram
1 May 2012

Download the Report


One of the most pressing questions in international diplomacy is whether it is possible to reach a comprehensive agreement to end the impasse surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme. There is a mood of cautious optimism following the Istanbul talks of April 2012, and the first round of talks at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in early May 2012. EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton’s statement in the aftermath of the Istanbul talks that the “NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement” was in keeping with this more upbeat shift of gear. The emphasis on “reciprocity” was especially constructive, stressing Iran’s obligations as a signatory under the NPT, while also recognising its right to uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes.[i]

Whilst there are some changes, both in tone and substance, a significantly different negotiating approach will be needed to reach a solution on the core issues of disagreement. This briefing argues that a breakthrough is certainly possible if there is such a change of approach. This analysis is based on Oxford Research Group’s series of consultations with individuals close to the decision making process on the Iranian nuclear file with the aim of envisioning a workable and realistic solution to the impasse.

It highlights some of the key features of a potential deal between the E3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, UK and US) and Iran on its nuclear programme. It identifies a set of tangible steps and considerations regarding the conduct, structure and sequencing of negotiations, and thereby offer a persuasive way forward for all parties involved. Given the failures of the previous rounds of talks, and the ongoing deadlock, this report also draws attention to the chief constraints and obstacles to negotiations – so they may also be addressed - and to what would constitute a successful negotiation.

The first section looks at principles, which we believe should be taken into consideration by negotiators. The principles avoid many of the pitfalls which have led past negotiations to come to very little by way of tangible results. These principles include the need to talk without preconditions, phasing of the talks, emphasizing the implicit end-state of any negotiations process, face-saving strategies for all parties involved, trust-building measures, regional security cooperation and abstention from interference in the domestic affairs of one another. 

The second section of the briefing goes on to analyse the dual-track policy of the Obama administration and the EU i.e. the pursuit of “crippling sanctions” in concert with statements of willingness to engage. We suggest that in the event of the forward movement and progress of negotiations, policy-makers be attentive to the prospect of recalibrating this policy. Maintaining proportion between punitive and concessionary measures should remain at the forefront of their minds.

The concern is that due to domestic political constraints, and Iran’s inadequate levels of cooperation in the past, the pendulum may have swung too far in favour of punitive measures, with a resultant dearth of proposals and lack of appetite for constructive engagement. The “carrot and stick” approach has already been rejected by the Iranians, who regard it is offensive to their cultural sensibilities, which explains Iranian caution towards American outreach. The US, on the other hand, has regarded such statements as largely self-serving. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, famously described it as “an iron fist ensconced in a velvet glove”. It appears that the balance in the dual track approach is necessary, if and when Iran shows itself amenable to genuine compromise and concessions.

The third section attempts to draw the general contours of the deal itself. It argues that Iran’s rights under the NPT, and also its concomitant duties toward the international community are acknowledged and enforced. Iran’s conditional right to enrich uranium exclusively for civil purposes must be underwritten, albeit limited in order to allay conclusively once and for all the fears that the Islamic Republic is surreptitiously pursuing a break-out nuclear weapons capability.  In return, Iran would also have to agree to implement and eventually ratify the Additional Protocol, permitting IAEA inspectors unrestricted access until all suspicion of possible military dimensions have been rescinded.  Confidence-building measures are also reviewed. For example, Iran could temporarily freeze the further expansion of its programme, and similarly the US and its allies would cease their aggressive pursuit of further sanctions. 

The final section is a review of the obstacles and impediments that the E3+3 states and Iran face in initiating and sustaining negotiations in the future. There is no military solution to this impasse. Despite the events of the “Arab Spring”, the region remains a tinderbox which could be set alight, by either irresponsible military action or by inaction and unwillingness to engage the other side.

We hope this briefing can provide some indicators of how and why the negotiations failed in the past, but also some ideas on how they might succeed in the future. We suggest that Track II talks would play a useful role in support of the official negotiations.