Thursday, October 30, 2014
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The Nixon Option for Iran?

WASHINGTON, DC – Rearranging the deck chairs would not have saved the Titanic. Nor did the endless debates on the shape of the table in the Vietnam negotiations advance the effort to end that malign conflict. Nevertheless, many American presidents have successfully redesigned talks with adversaries in bold new ways to strengthen national security without war. Such boldness is now needed in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt negotiated personally with Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov to open diplomatic relations between the two countries. Dwight D. Eisenhower invited Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959 to open the eyes of the first Soviet leader ever to visit America. The bilateral US-China talks in Warsaw in the 1960’s were fruitless until Richard M. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger opened a different, more direct discussion through the auspices of Pakistan.  

International negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program also need a new concept and broader agenda. The Istanbul meeting last month concluded on a positive note. Both sides decided to find a way to avoid the pattern of mutual recrimination and sterile exchanges. The door is now open to an initial agreement with modest goals.

But don’t count on a new era without some form of direct US-Iran discussions. The talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) are formulaic, stagnant, and not likely to achieve any breakthrough on their own. The Iranians feel out-numbered by diverse participants with varying agendas. The US needs to reshape the environment to make it easier for Iran to compromise.

The US should press for bilateral talks. One lesson provided by former American presidents is the value of direct, high-level contacts with key adversaries. Of course, a face-to-face meeting between President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems absurd to imagine – now. But could any meeting have seemed more absurd in 1969 than the 1972 meeting between Nixon and Mao Zedong? The US and Iran need to set a path toward broad bilateral discussions on worldviews, regional security, and plans to improve mutual understanding in order to minimize differences.

Even without direct US-Iran talks now, the current negotiations need reshaping. The P5+1 should continue to negotiate with Iran on its uranium-enrichment program, while the International Atomic Energy Agency should negotiate with Iran on strengthening the transparency of its nuclear program. The Iranians want to resolve their problems directly with the IAEA, and to avoid negotiating under the cloud of UN Security Council resolutions, which impose sanctions on Iran to force suspension of enrichment.

This situation suggests a phased approach. First, during the talks in Baghdad, the P5+1 might seek an early confidence-building agreement by which Iran voluntarily ceases enriching the U-235 fissile isotope to 20% content and blends down or ships out its stockpile of such uranium, which is closer to weapons grade. They might also seek a standstill on the deep underground enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom, in exchange for provision of fuel rods for Iran’s research reactor and a freeze on some sanctions.

Second, the P5+1 could then agree to agree to some Iranian enrichment as an incentive for Iran to conclude a parallel agreement with the IAEA on greater transparency. These parallel steps would reshape the process to achieve a key US objective: ensuring that Iran abides by Khamenei’s own fatwa (religious decree) against nuclear weapons.

Third, both sides will need to outline the long-term objectives of the negotiations. As the IAEA presses Iran for agreements on greater transparency, Iran wants to know where such agreements might lead, particularly regarding sanctions.

Iranians claim that each time they move toward cooperation with the US, a new problem emerges to block improved relations. Iran wants to know which sanctions might be delayed, frozen, or lifted in exchange for current and future concessions, fearing that the US will continue to impose sanctions on human-rights, security, or other grounds.

The US, for its part, views Iran as a duplicitous and unreliable negotiator that is committed to nuclear weapons and unserious about talks. The time has come to test Iran’s intentions by reaching something like the two-phased agreements outlined here – a longer-term, step-by-step process with reciprocal actions, in which each side must give something to get what it needs.

Finally, even with step-by-step progress on Iran’s nuclear program, broader discussions are needed to address the many non-nuclear issues that threaten regional stability. There is currently no forum to discuss Afghanistan, Iraq, drug trafficking, Persian Gulf security, emergency communications to avoid accidental conflict, and the sources of deep distrust and misunderstanding.

Some of these discussions might involve representatives of states that are not part of the P5+1, including governments that have closer relations with Iran. To organize discussion of these broader issues, the US and others should explore the possibility of appointing a special envoy – perhaps a former Chief of State under UN auspices – to engage Iran in new ways.

If Obama were to take the lead in reshaping the setting and the process by which the US and others talk with Iran, progress could become easier. The Istanbul talks opened the door to an initial – if incremental – breakthrough agreement. The US now has an opportunity to establish new ways to explore common ground and reach a more durable political solution.

Read more from our "The World According to Obama" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedIvan Azymov

    '..progress would become easier.'

    Progress in what, exactly?  And for whom?

    Iranians are NOT interested in conquest disguised as 'Democracy'.  They are not interested in occupation disguised as 'help'.  And they are not interested in becoming a colony disguised as yet another addition to an 'alliance'.

    The IAEA has not found n iota of weapons-grade material despite numerous inspections to every location deemed suspect. Yet, the U.S. insists Iran is lacking in cooperation.

    Logic dictates the conflict is not about the thinly veiled argument of non-cooperation, but instead, it is about control.

    Iran understands this, and clearly sees past the subterfuge purported by the U.S., and thus maintains itself on guard (and rightly so). Regardless of attempts at reconciliation, if the philosophies on both sides remain the same (a likely possibility), the end solution will also amount to the same: confrontation.

    It is surprising to see the same errors repeated time and again to this day--should the U.S. keep pressing for control in the Middle East, despite the existing differences amongst the arab-speaking countries, said push for dominance may have the opposite effect: unification in order to prevent conquest by a foreign power.

    In the 1960s, an initiative to permanently limit nuclear armament to a few 'select' countries was launched. The initiative was flawed from the beginning, given that Russia was included as a matter of consequence.

    I recall being astonished at the arrogance of such an initiative. Knowledge cannot be systematically and indefinitely supressed--humanity simply does not function in that manner.

    Numerous present (and past) 'world leaders' subscribe to the fallacy of absolute control. They refuse to accept the fact that provided time, discoveries and accomplishments are duplicated--even in isolation. They also purport to respect sovereignty, though their actions speak volumes to the contrary. Unless the U.S. and allied countries accept these facts (and subsequently conduct themselves in a manner which accommodates the actuality and right of sovereign states), the end result will always be conflict. Regrettably, in light of the unchanging pattern, the inevitable escalation may prove to be catastrophic--for all involved.


      CommentedKevin Lim

      You suggest the real issue is control. Arguable. But you then suggest that we should not aim for total control.

      If ever there was an area of knowledge for which total control is required, it is the technology behind building a nuclear weapon.

      Your objections are both philisophical (we must respect state sovereignty) and practical (they are gonna figure it out sooner or later). Your philosophical argument assumes that state sovereignty is inviolate. But international law has never recognised state sovereignty as something so absolute e.g. A state can not hide behind state sovereignty to perpetuate genocide. When it comes to nuclear weapons, the stakes are so large that state sovereignty should not, cannot be a defence. You object to the hypocrisy that some states are permitted such weapons. Granted, but that is a practical concession not a philosophical one. Once a state develops a significant nuclear arsenal, in the ultimate analysis who has the leverage to compel it to relinquish it? So is it hypocritical? Yes, but you are just gonna have to get over it because every new state that possesses such weapons results in creating more flash points and more global instability as power relationships try to reach a new equilibrium.

      As for your practical argument, that is simply countered. The development of nuclear weapons is not something that governments accidentally stumble upon. It is a deliberate choice. And like all deliberate choices it can be influenced. Iran is seeking such weapons because it fears (rightly) that the US is seeking regime change. It is of course not entirely innocent in that affair but thats an argument for another time. With the right incentives e.g. assurances of non-interference, ending of sanctions, and the right disincentives e.g. further sanctions, perhaps it can be convinced that it can reach an accomodation with the West that does not involve having the Bomb. We may already be seeing the beginnings of that accomodation - Khamanei has recently declared possession of such weapons as a "grave sin" a position that it will be hard to back track from, and in Israel policy makers are openly saying that Iran is not seeking the Bomb. A face-saving accomodation can be reached which would allow Iran to have nuclear energy with the assurances that the world needs that it cannot easily turn that technology to warlike ends.

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