Monday, June 11, 2012

What Is Iran's Negotiating Strategy?

I am trying to figure out Iran’s strategy in the current round of negotiations. The P5+1 presented a proposal in Baghdad last month. Iran has not responded to that proposal, nor presented a proposal of its own, although a number of Iranian government officials have made a variety of statements, some of them contradicting each other.

The preferred end states for Iran and the P5+1 emphasize different aspects of what might be a settlement. Neither side has made its preferred end state explicit, which is fair enough in negotiations. A public statement makes it harder to compromise. However, it is possible to infer something about the end states from the two sides' public statements and actions.

The P5+1 would like an Iranian nuclear program that is clearly of peaceful intent, which would require extensive IAEA investigation and monitoring. Israel has insisted on no nuclear program at all for Iran; Israel is not a part of the P5+1 but is rather a noisy onlooker. I want to focus on actions and statements in this post, rather than motives, so I will not speculate as to Israel’s influence on the P5+1.

The Iranians would like to continue building a full fuel cycle. They would like for the world to accept this as, say, Japan’s fuel cycle is accepted. They would like for sanctions to be lifted. They would like to be assured that the West is not determined to bring about regime change. Again, I will leave aside the possible motive of being able to build nuclear weapons.

Neither side seems to want war, and, in fact, all indications are that war would be disastrous for all who might be involved. It would seem that a settlement would be possible in which Iran would continue its nuclear program under intensive IAEA supervision, and sanctions would be lifted. Both sides have things they can give up: on Iran’s side, 20% enrichment and its continuing intransigence with the IAEA; on the other side, sanctions and the demand for Iran to open all its books on nuclear weapons work more than, say, a decade old.

Each side lacks confidence that the other will carry out its promises. Additionally, there may be differences in negotiating styles like what Steve Hynd wrote in 2006. However, the negotiation framework is a conventional one, the kind that diplomats of many nations have become accustomed to.

A customary approach to confidence-building is for each side to agree to a small action and then carry it through. The agreement put forth by the P5+1 at Baghdad has not been made fully public, but its main features seem to be:
Iran stops enriching uranium to 19.75% and eventually closes down the enrichment plant at Fordow.

The P5+1 supply fabricated fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), along with medical isotopes and safety upgrades. Additionally, plans will be made to replace the TRR with a reactor that runs on low-enriched (3.5%) fuel.

Safety assistance will be made available for the Bushehr reactor.

Trade in replacement parts for civilian airliners will resume.
The offer is still on the table, and Iran has not made a counteroffer through the negotiating channels.

Since Iran now has enough 20% enriched uranium to fuel the TRR for almost a decade, shutting down that enrichment line would be consistent with reactor fuel as Tehran’s goal. Replacement parts for civilian airliners have been part of the sanctions, so that offer is a small step in the direction of removing sanctions. A counteroffer from Iran might, for one example, argue that Fordow operations should be a suspended rather than completely shut down, and that the sanctions scheduled for July be suspended for a year. There are an enormous number of possibilities for an Iranian response or counterproposal.

Iran’s response over the past week has been largely public, with contradictory statements from several officials saying that the offer is not enough; that 20% enrichment can be considered, or, conversely, never given up; and complaints that P5+1 followup has been inadequate.

Such a response lies outside the normal diplomatic process. That, in itself, undercuts confidence in Iran as a negotiating partner. It is now beginning to appear that, once again, Iran’s internal disagreements have been surfacing in the last week’s statements. But that is a factor in whether Iran can be trusted to carry out its commitments.

There are also reasons for Iran not to trust the P5+1. David Sanger’s recent report that the US and Israel are responsible for Duqu and Stuxnet, the New York Times report on US use of drones, the Spiegel report of Germany’s long relationship with Israel and sales of submarines, and reports of the Flame computer virus may well be seen by the Iranians as a combination of bragging and threats against them. Bad timing for these reports to come out. Or necessary to keep Israel from attacking now? The P5+1 has its disagreements too.

Last week’s failure of talks with the IAEA undercuts confidence in Iran. Something happened three weeks ago that convinced Director-General Yukiya Amano that his presence in Iran could help to facilitate an agreement on access to Parchin. But Iran comes back to its insistence on a “structured approach,” process rather than substance. Amano demonstrated goodwill by his rapid response to Iran’s overture and obtained nothing in return.

Some months back, Russia proposed a step-by-step process for the negotiations, not made public. It was reported to be based on small steps, and Iran seemed to like it. If the P5+1’s Baghdad offer was based on the Russian proposal, and if Iran continues to ignore the P5+1 proposal, one more reason not to trust Iran.

Another problem in the negotiations is that the two sides appear to value concessions differently. This may be a matter of statements designed to influence the negotiation or it may be a genuine divergence in thinking. The only way to find out will be to continue the negotiations.

A great many possibilities have been suggested for tradeoffs between the two. Iran values its nuclear program highly and seems to see any modifications to it as a large concession. A large concession for the P5+1 involves delaying or lifting sanctions.

More generally, from an anonymous Western official:
"Our basic position is versatile concessions for versatile concessions, and irreversible concessions for irreversible concessions," he said about the administration's thinking. "We would view an irreversible concession as the lifting of sanctions. And in return they would have to take an irreversible step."
Reza Marashi:
Europe [could] offer a delay of its impending embargo of Iranian oil for six months. In return, Iran would freeze its enrichment of uranium at the twenty-percent level for the same duration.
A more detailed example of this tactical mismatch is provided by Gareth Porter’s conclusion that the activities of apparent cleanup at the Parchin military base are intended as bargaining chips to motivate the IAEA (and P5+1?) to give up more in the negotiations. If this is indeed the purpose of the activities at Parchin, it is a misreading of the IAEA’s and P5+1’s goals or an inflexibility in understanding the negotiations.

If the desired endgame on the part of the IAEA and P5+1 is a verifiably peaceful and transparent Iranian nuclear program, then what they want is not simply access to Parchin. They are looking for cooperation by the Iranians on disclosing their previous weapons activities that access to Parchin would represent. However, by their activities at Parchin, which seem to indicate a cleanup campaign, the Iranians have made it impossible for sampling to confirm that nuclear-weapons-related activities did not take place or did not at Parchin. Although an Iranian objective with the IAEA is to close questions on the nuclear weapons program, this sort of activity provides the IAEA with a reason to keep those questions open.

If an Iranian nuclear weapons program ended in 2003, as many believe, and if the Iranians have no plans to develop nuclear weapons in the future, they should be able to open their books on the matter to the IAEA. They would not be the first nation to do this. There would be more questions beyond Parchin, but if the program is ended, they should be able to answer them satisfactorily. Even more so if some of the questions are, as the Iranians claim, based on fabrications.

However, it appears that the IAEA issues will not directly impact the talks in Moscow. Russia does not want the talks to collapse on their soil, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is headed for Tehran. China has also been urging the Iranians to negotiate.

Laura Rozen has reported that the United States is considering “going big” in a proposal in Moscow. It’s not clear what this would entail. It seems unlikely from the cautious negotiating strategies both sides have employed, but surprises are always possible. If a radically different P5+1 proposal were put forth and Iran responded they way it has for the past month, the argument that negotiations are fruitless would gain strength.

This morning it almost looked like the talks would be called off. As the day has gone on, somewhat more optimistic reports are surfacing, particularly on Laura Rozen’s blog, one example here. Tomorrow could be yet another story, and it’s a week until the talks are scheduled to start. Look for more ups and downs.

Update: I didn't say much about the IAEA's role, which is just as well, because Mark Hibbs, Ariel Levite, and Pierre Goldschmidt say it all here.

6/13/12: I'm having some problems connecting with that article. Here's another version.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.

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