Beware of partial deals

President Hassan Rouhani has never lost sight of the goal of pushing forward Iran’s option for military nuclear capability.

Rouhani on the phone 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rouhani on the phone 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AS THE West reengages in talks with Iran on its nuclear program, there are significant lessons to be learned from Iran’s negotiating performance over the past decade.
Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, led the Iranian team in the early round of nuclear negotiations with the EU-3 (France, Britain, and Germany) from 2003 to 2005.
According to some media accounts, this initial attempt at diplomacy resulted in an Iranian agreement to a two-year suspension of its uranium conversion activities, broken only by the election of the more defiant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005. According to this view, the moderate Rouhani could perhaps have brokered a final deal if only things had not suddenly taken a turn for the worse.
The reality, however, is quite different.
Iran only agreed to engage the three European states after the revelation in 2002 that it had neglected to report two nuclear facilities, Natanz and Arak, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and after a subsequent ultimatum issued by the IAEA to Iran in September 2003: Either Iran must agree to suspend nuclear activities, cooperate fully with the IAEA and adhere to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, granting the IAEA more intrusive inspection rights, or it would refer Iran’s case to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
This triggered a European offer to negotiate an understanding with Iran. The Iranians jumped at the chance to replace immediate referral to the Security Council with a more lengthy process of negotiations.
In the talks, Iran admitted to having conducted a secret nuclear program for 18 years, agreed to suspend uranium conversion activities and to sign the Additional Protocol (which it has not ratified to this day).
But the suspension proved to be short-lived.
Moreover, during the eight months it lasted, Iran was not in full compliance and was suspected of circumventing the deal.
In June 2004, complaining that its case had not yet been removed from the IAEA agenda, Iran unilaterally ended the suspension.
Of course, the case had not been removed from the IAEA’s purview because Iran was not fully in compliance and was not cooperating with the IAEA.
Over the next few months Iran returned to full nuclear activity, until a second period of suspension was secured in November 2004. But this time it was even briefer, ending in May 2005 with Iran’s peremptory announcement that it was resuming its nuclear activities. This was a month before Ahmadinejad was elected, clearly reflecting Iran’s basic policy to continue to develop its nuclear program, regardless of who was leading nuclear negotiations.
Two lessons can be gleaned from this early period. First, when Iran agrees to a suspension, it means only a suspension and not an end to nuclear activities. While the Europeans apparently assumed that the suspension was a prelude to a full close down, the Iranians were merely waiting for an opportune moment to resume activities.
Second, a partial deal with Iran does not necessarily build confidence. To the contrary, what happened was that the suspension deal merely sparked persistent Iranian attempts to get around it, while accusing the Europeans of undermining the understandings. This two-year experience only left both sides bitterly disappointed and the Europeans utterly disillusioned.
Significantly, what Rouhani established in this early period was the basic principle that guided Iran’s conduct in the nuclear realm in the ensuing years: to progress with its program at maximum speed, but at minimum cost to itself in the international arena.
The point of equilibrium in the balance between the two goals shifted over the years: during Rouhani’s time it was closer to the “minimal cost” goalpost, whereas Ahmadinejad moved it much closer to the side of “maximum speed.” Nevertheless, Rouhani never lost sight of the goal of pushing the nuclear weapons option forward; he was simply more intent on avoiding referral to the Security Council for sanctions and not risking being next in line for US attack after Iraq in 2003. Indeed, he later noted that the only reason for negotiating with the Europeans was to gain precious time to push the nuclear program forward.
During the Ahmadinejad years, the cost factor was not totally ignored either. Indeed, there were several attempts at negotiations over the past eight years, at times when it was deemed useful for Iran to be engaged in talks – not to negotiate in earnest for a deal, but simply to show a cooperative face to help ward off harsher international measures.
2012 WAS a turning point with regard to international pressure on Iran. The heavy sanctions put in place early that year really started to bite, and the major criticism that Rouhani leveled at Ahmadinejad in the pre-election period in 2013 was not that he had pushed the nuclear program forward too quickly, but rather that he had lost sight of the price Iran was paying in economic terms. Rouhani was elected to get the sanctions off Iran’s back.
Generally speaking, Iran has some inherent advantages over the international community in the negotiations situation, the most important of which is that it does not need negotiations to move toward its goal. Indeed, a negotiated settlement would presumably spell the end of its military nuclear aspirations. On the other hand, the international community not only wants a negotiated settlement; it is dependent on one to achieve its goal of a non-nuclear Iran without having to employ military force.
This dependence on diplomacy translates into vulnerability vis-à-vis Iran, and to a large degree has enabled the Iranians to play a purely tactical game at the negotiating table, while never losing sight of their strategic nuclear goals.
Given this basic asymmetry, what are the prospects for cutting a deal with Iran today? The history of the past decade does not leave much room for optimism. The good news is that pressure works, and does bring Iran to the table. The relevant question, however, is not whether Iran is willing to make some minor tactical concessions, but whether it has taken a strategic decision to reverse course in the nuclear realm, and forgo its military ambitions.
From the partial information in the media, it seems that the Iranian proposal presented at the recent talks in Geneva does not reflect a change in substance. Negotiations are still being carried out at the tactical level, with Iran looking to gain maximum sanctions relief, while maintaining its option for military nuclear capability.
For their part, the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) appear to be considering an initial partial deal with Iran – a confidence-building measure they say – that will gain essential time to negotiate a comprehensive deal. But unless Iran has made a strategic U-turn in the nuclear realm, the P5+1 should be very wary of any partial deals. Past experience has shown that rather than improving the prospects for moving toward a final agreement, partial deals risk becoming the new starting point for endless discussions with Iran about what exactly was agreed and who is not upholding what aspect of the partial deal in question.
To come out ahead in this bargaining process with Iran, the P5+1 must first understand the tactical game, in which the Iranians seek to exploit the international community’s inherent weaknesses. The P5+1 must remain focused on the only relevant question at hand – namely, is Iran ready for an about-face with regard to its military ambitions? As long as it is only a tactical game the Iranians are playing, international pressure should not be lifted.
Nor does it make sense to signal that the military option is off the table. The international community will have to be at least as good as Iran at this game – and one would hope better. Dr. Emily Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies.