Persistence is Critical in Diplomatic Negotiations with Iran
After years of largely unsuccessful diplomatic efforts, one can hardly be blamed for feeling a little cynical about the latest round of negotiations with Iran. But though the discussion has yet to lead to a breakthrough, it is still far from breaking down. Diplomacy takes time, and Iran has more incentive to compromise now than ever before. There is still reason to believe that this new round may hold more possibility for success than those of the past.
Following the most recent discussion between the P5+1 and Iran on June 18 and 19, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton stated that, “… nobody in that room wants talks for talks sake. And the fact is that they did begin to address the substance for the first time. But there is a very, very long way to go.” This outcome was not surprising to experts familiar with the diplomatic process, but has been used to provide reason for abandoning the process altogether at a time when its persistence is arguably the most critical.
Iran is increasingly feeling the pain caused by biting sanctions, while the US and its allies genuinely seek an outcome short of military conflict. Both sides are interested in continuing the dialogue that began in Istanbul, but what remains to be seen is whether the protagonists are willing to push for and make good on meaningful compromise.
The severity of current sanctions will increase sharply in July, when the European Union’s 27 member countries are set to stop Iranian crude purchases. Already, Iran’s currency has lost more than 40% of its value, forcing the country to postpone billions in new energy projects, and dozens of Iran’s banks have been cut off from the international finance system. Despite recent claims that Iran’s nuclear program is approaching a “zone of immunity,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has admitted that sanctions “are certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy.”
Iran is unlikely to alter its current course, however, unless current leverage created by sanctions is exploited through discussions to ascertain whether Iran is willing to change course. To seize this opportunity, the US will not have the option for indifference. The US and its allies must be aggressive in their negotiations, continuing to push for a bilateral track in addition to existing multilateral discussions. Years of mistrust must be overcome in order to move forward, and neither country is likely to accept an agreement that does not include both incentives and concessions. Each side must be willing to accept some form of compromise. Unfortunately, in the most recent round of negotiations in Moscow, little evidence of flexibility was offered by either side.
Top intelligence officials in both the US and Israel agree that Iran has not yet made the decision to build a capable nuclear weapon. In a recent interview, Israel’s military chief Lt. Gen Benny Gantz told Haaretz that “If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken.” Should the Supreme Leader make such a decision, “I believe he would be making an enormous mistake,” said Gantz, “and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile.”
The time may come for the President to make a decision on the use of force, but that time is not now. Now, the US and its allies should have full and unquestionable support in their diplomatic efforts, because just as there is little question as to the danger of a nuclear armed Iran, there is also little question as to the consequence of impulsive military action. Diplomatic talks remain the best way forward to both prevent a nuclear armed Iran and the possibility of a larger war in the Middle East.
Laicie Olson is a Truman Security Partner.