Iran: New talks, nothing learned

New talks between Iran and the P5+1 are clouded in the same uncertainty as previous tries to get Teheran to desist from pursuing nuclear weapons.

Ayatollah and Missile 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Ayatollah and Missile 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
According to media reports, it seems that a new round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany) has been set for mid-November.
Beyond the proposed dates, nothing has been determined. It’s not clear who will be at the table, or what they will be talking about.
Will it be representatives from all six states meeting with Iranian representatives or will it be only the EU’s Catherine Ashton – representing the P5+1 – meeting with Iran’s Saeed Jalili? Will the discussion address Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, or will it be another round focused on the famous fuel deal – negotiated by the parties last October only to be later rejected by Iran? While these important issues are still up in the air, the all too familiar dynamic of the parties’ pre-negotiation positioning is emerging with disturbing clarity. The dynamics that are unfolding in the run-up to the new round of talks demonstrate that the West has unfortunately learned nothing from its past experience about how to negotiate more effectively with Iran. Indications are that the US and European states are poised to repeat the same mistakes that they have made over and over again in the past eight years of failed attempts to negotiate with Iran, a determined and dangerous proliferator.

One of the keys to effective bargaining in international relations is taking steps to strengthen one’s hand in the dynamic between the two sides – assuming the lead so that the other side must follow. Unfortunately, Iran is the one that has internalized this lesson. First we saw how it took the upper hand in the pre-negotiation phase with regard to timing – by keeping the West waiting and guessing about when it would come up with a date for the next round of talks.
When a US official said that the US is awaiting Iran’s formal response and that Iran knows the phone number to call, he only underscored that it was Iran that was dictating the pace. Now Iran is trying to take the lead as far as decisions regarding the content of the talks as well – by clarifying what it is and is not willing to discuss.
IRAN UNDERSTANDS the importance of framing. It is turning the tables on the West on two of the latter’s favorite – albeit so far largely ineffective – demands: setting preconditions to negotiations, and giving the other side “a choice.” It is now Iran that is setting a precondition for talking with the West. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demands that these states first “express their views on Israel’s atomic weapons.” And Iran tells the West that it has a choice: It can either respond or remain silent. But if it chooses the path of silence on this issue, there will be consequences: The talks will yield nothing.
If the pattern sounds familiar, it’s because US President Barack Obama has repeated over and over that Iran has a choice: to cooperate or risk isolation. Iran is assuming the rhetoric of the stronger party, the one that makes demands of the other. By adopting this language, and dictating its terms to the other side, Iran wants to project that it has the upper hand ahead of the next round of talks.
And most disturbing of all, so far the West has been silent in the face of this Iranian positioning. Not only is it refraining from taking steps to assume the lead and project that it is the one controlling the situation, it is giving the sense that if only Iran agrees to set a date and come to the table, nothing else matters.
All of this is bad news as far as its bargaining position.
The fact that the US and EU have chosen not to react firmly to Iran’s ludicrous precondition – firmly nipping it in the bud – means that it remains on the table, reinforcing the helplessness of the West. The identity of the party that sits opposite the Iranians in November is also not a trivial matter.
That this most difficult negotiation would be left to the navigation of Catherine Ashton strengthens the sense of impending failure.
US leadership is sorely missing. Is there anything more central to Obama’s nonproliferation agenda than stopping Iran on the road to a military capability? In June and July significant sanctions against Iran were agreed upon in the UN framework, followed by even stronger unilateral sanctions by a number of states, led by the US. The US was well positioned to carry this display of determination to the next level: setting the stage for more forceful bargaining with Iran, boosted by credible threats of military force. To allow this impressive show of international determination to be squandered in another ineffective negotiation focused on a meaningless fuel deal – with Iran dictating the pace and content of the proposed three-day discussion – will be an enormous step in the wrong direction.
The writer is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies of Tel Aviv University.