Richard Dalton, former British Ambassador to Libya and to Iran and now a fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, writes for EA:
Given the depth of mutual distrust, it is a significant achievement for Iran and the Six countries negotiating with them to have launched a serious dialogue on a peaceful negotiated solution.
The Six [US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia] have been at sixes and sevens too often. The difficult work starts now, crafting a negotiating strategy that will start building trust and will end with a permanently reduced risk of Iran ever building nuclear weapons.
Iran will have to decide whether it will go beyond exploring the positions of the other side and to actually deliver on transparency, scrutiny, and limits on its freedom of action.
Iran travelled furthest to make this happen: they dropped the preconditions that wrecked the last talks in January 2011. Why? Four main reasons. The leadership decided around August 2011 that they should resolve the outstanding concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency's secretariat and its members that there had been many, and still could be some, military dimensions to its nuclear activities.
Second, they have made significant, bankable progress in their nuclear endeavours despite sanctions, including getter much closer to weapons capability.
Third, the sanctions have hurt their economy and prejudiced domestic quiet much more than they had anticipated.
Last but not least, the pragmatic reflex in Iran has never been eclipsed --- to use diplomacy to work around obstacles that cannot be shifted by full-frontal defiance.
Perhaps they decided too that they should no longer take such punishment for something they are not doing at present --- going for a bomb. Even intelligence services hostile to them say they are not doing that.
Some members of the Six helped. In 2011 the Russians put forward a phased plan for big concessions by Iran in return for easing pressures on them, reflecting the fact that their businesses have paid the highest price for implementing sanctions. The UK will have worked hard to bridge the inevitable gap between them and the rest, especially the hard-necked French.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated publicly that Iran could expect to be able to enrich uranium once it was in good standing with the IAEA and had assured the world of the exclusively peaceful nature of its programmes. President Obama renewed some of his 2009 language implying respect for the Islamic Republic in a private message to Ayatollah Khamenei. He ended years of uncertainty when he stated during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington that it was the bomb, not the capability to make one, that was the US red line. He also made clear that he would not give Israel a green light to make war on Iran in current circumstances.
In European Union representative Catherine Ashton’s statement the Six referred to Iran complying with all its international obligations. Fine. But the Six appear to have improved their tactics by down-playing their demand for compliance with the UN Security Council requirements that Iran suspends all enrichment and the construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor. Their statement said that the Non-proliferation Treaty was “a” key basis. The Iranians would no doubt have preferred “the” key basis, but it is still a new point of emphasis for the Six that will make it easier to find common ground with Iran.
Other good words in the statement of the Six are “step by step” –-- seductive as are ideas of getting everything right in one go, the matters to be negotiated are too complex, and the doubts of each about the true intentions of the other, are so profound, that proceeding by verified phases is essential. And not just for the negotiators: the US and Iran both have difficult domestic political situations. They have to convince their respective nay-sayers.
Even better is “reciprocity”. Although little appeared in the media in advance of the talks about what Iran might get if it changed its policy, it is obvious that the Six have known for some time that --- to quote another official speaking about potential concessions by the Six in the margin of the talks: “We will have to be credible too." Simply holding at Iran’s head a gun in one hand and the power to impoverish Iranians in the other was never going to save the NPT, avert war, reassure the neighbours, and keep oil flowing.
So each side moved some way. Earlier each had escalated in the hope of bringing extra pressure to bear to shift any negotiations their way. The Iranians started 20% enrichment, and then moved it from exposed Natanz to safer Fordow, underlining the perils for the Six in delaying a move to a more flexible and hence constructive position. And ever-tighter financial sanctions and the partial oil embargo appear to have led Iran to moderate its defiance and allow itself the option of a change of policy.
It will be tough turning these preliminary moves into a deal. The first requirement for the Six is to recognize in practise that distrust is two-way. They must be seen to negotiate in good-faith on nuclear issues and not to hold regime change up their sleeves.
Second, they must temper their preference for caution by giving Iran a picture at the outset, in secret, of what a successful outcome could look like. Elements should include satisfying the IAEA that Iran’s declarations of nuclear material are correct and complete, enrichment for peaceful purposes in Iran matching output of low –enriched uranium to Iran’s future civil reactor building programme, limitation of the percentage level of future enrichment, and enhanced surveillance of Iran’s activities --- building on Iran’s Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA which it observes well --- including the Additional Protocol. In return, Iran should get progressive lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions, and --- a word dear to Iran which appeared in the statements after the Istanbul talks –-- “cooperation”, meaning in nuclear developments.
Third, nuclear arrangements negotiated between the parties and with the IAEA are a necessary but not sufficient condition for complete success. Regional political and security-related concerns must be addressed in order to start reducing the gulf between the US, Israel and the GCC states, and Iran. If in due course Iran and the US can start their own bilateral track, so much the better.
Next, dialogue must be given time. It should be possible to work out a first step this year based on the much-discussed end of 20% enrichment in return for cooperation over fuel supply for the Tehran Research reactor. But talk of a final and closing window for talks is unrealistic: the US simply cannot go far enough for a deal during an election campaign. A full year will be needed. And demanded of Israel, which in any case, is highly unlikely to abort the new sanctions-backed diplomacy by attacking Iran if --- a crucial if --- there is no change in the current overall intelligence picture of there being no imminent threat to it from Iran.
Fifth, the dialogue must be sustained at a much higher intensity that hitherto. Between December 2004 and June 2005 Britain, France and Germany were in regular meetings with in Iran on cooperation, security and nuclear questions to clear the ground for what became the 2005 E3 proposal to Iran. That is the model --- not the once or twice a year sessions that followed that failure.
Finally, a more forthcoming tone from France's Quai d’Orsay and Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office would help. Of course there is a long way to go (British Foreign Secretary William Hague) and of course Iran must make urgent gestures (French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe). The White House realised that it is worthwhile to give credit to your adversary when it is deserved --- they praised Iran’s positive attitude.
The tensions in the Gulf should now subside for a period of months at least. Diplomacy has a serious chance of success. Strong leadership is needed on both sides to turn a beginning into promising first agreements, and later into a permanent resolution.