Friday, April 10, 2009

Prospects for Iran-US Negotiations


Prospects for Iran-US Negotiations

Ali Asghar Kazemi

April 9, 2009


Barrack Obama’s Nowruz message to Iranians and leaders of the Islamic regime leaves the impression that the new US president intends to demonstrate that he is sincere to put into action his presidential campaign promises with respect to Iran. He had pledged to open direct talks with Iran for the purpose of alleviating the mutual misperceptions accumulated during the past 30 years with the purpose of paving the path for normalization of relations through diplomacy. While the Iranian supreme leader did not reject categorically the offer in response, he nonetheless used harsh words to criticize the United States past policies and advised the new president to take real actions in order to prove his good intentions.

Assuming that the two parties are indeed ready to engage into some sort of talks and negotiations, before this could materialized two important questions should be clarified: first, how to negotiate; and second, what to negotiate? It seems that without resolving these essential problems any ushering of the talks would be doomed to failure. This short comment shall try to discuss briefly the matter as preliminary thoughts on the point.


The assumptions we made at the outset are rather arbitrary and perhaps not realistic. Therefore, before discussing on the whereabouts of the questions, let’s examine how much reasonable are our initial suggestions. It is true that for the sake of simplicity we assumed the two sides agree to start negotiations, but we should not lose sight of the intrigues and suspicions that might be involved in this proposition.

On the one hand, Iranians might think that Obama’s offer to open direct talks is not genuine and his diplomatic initiative is merely a trap to push the Islamic leaders to the corner for bitter concessions on vital issues (redlines). This may also give the Americans a chance to build-up the necessary consensus to put more pressure on Iran and further isolate the Islamic regime from the mainstream of international affairs.

On the other hand, Americans too might perceive that Iranian leaders are not really sincere in their agreeing to negotiate with the “Great Satan” and they are just pursuing a treacherous tactics for the purposes of: a) buying time to reach final stages of their nuclear undertaking; b) reducing the effect the mounting threats of pre-emptive strike coming from the new right-wing Israeli cabinet; and finally c) demonstrating that the Islamic regime is a rational actor and partner that can help the new US president to straighten out various American burdens in the Middle East including Iraq and Afghanistan.

These quandaries and similar misperceptions might detract the two parties in their initial engagement for negotiations. In fact, as many believe, this initial phase which consists of mutual “confidence building” is much more important than the modalities and substance of the negotiations.

Now, coming back to our opening questions and assuming that the above mistrust is settled, the problem remains as how to open negotiations and what to negotiate upon?

Diplomacy in theory is by and large the promotion of the national interests through accommodation and peaceful means. It is the major instrument of foreign policy by which a state can achieve objectives, realize values and defend national interests. Governments have the function to communicate through their diplomatic agents with those whose actions and behavior they wish to influence, deter, alter or reinforce. This process requires a clear definition of a state’s objectives, rationalizations for them, threats, promises, and the setting up plans and strategies to tackle with problems and contentious issues. Furthermore, diplomacy requires tact, patience, good- faith and above all will to negotiate with a quid-pro-quo (give and take) objective.

With respect to the modalities of diplomatic negotiations, it is important to settle before anything the problem of formalities and procedure. This relates to the question of open or secret diplomacy. In other words, at the initial stage of diplomatic endeavor, parties should agree on whether it must be open and public or close and secret. History of important diplomatic breakthrough between hostile parties has shown that psychological environment of the issues involved requires secrecy and confidentiality of the talks at initial stages. Since, the rival parties are usually not prepared for ideological reasons or other pretexts to enter publicly into negotiations. This however does not guarantee the success of the approach. Secret approach to China during Nixon and Kissinger was a major success but Iran-Contra initiative during the Reagan administration ended into major foreign policy flop. On the contrary, Iran’s secret dealing with US on other matters such as American strike on Taliban in Afghanistan after September 11 proved to be also a success.

It seems that the Islamic leaders are not yet prepared to enter into an open public diplomacy with the United States due to a number of understandable reasons for a revolutionary-ideological regime that has created a taboo about any rapprochement and dealing with the “Great Satan” during the past thirty years. Controversies surrounded the Hillary Clinton public announcement about unscheduled meeting between Iran and US representatives during an international conference on Afghanistan at The Hague on March 2009, is an example of open diplomacy. It seems therefore that Iranians are very cautious about how to engage into some sort of talks with the United States without losing face at home.

Americans eventually do not mind to deal secretly with Iran provided the approach fulfills their objectives. However, the risk of revelation of such negotiations by US media, over which the government has no control, is very high and Iranians may think twice before undertaking such dealing in secret. The price of open talks is also too high for Islamic leaders, since it is hard for them to move away from their official positions in public forum. Consequently, we may argue that any attempt towards starting negotiations between Iran and the United States might encounter serious difficulties at the initial phase.

Assuming that the “How” question is settled, the next thorny problem of “What” to negotiate upon still remain to be worked out. In diplomatic talks, states usually try to find common grounds upon which they can negotiate without difficulty. This means that after preliminary testing mutual interests on simple and trouble-free issues, the parties gradually move to more difficult subjects that require patience, tolerance and will to compromise or “give and take.”

This requires the preparation a meticulous plan or agenda for negotiations. The agenda should reflect issues of mutual interests upon which the parties declare ready to talk and negotiate. Here again we may encounter insurmountable problems which are susceptible to totally frustrate the whole effort. Since, as we know so far, Iran has a number of “redlines” from which supposedly diplomats and negotiators are not allowed to trespass. They may be tentatively enumerated as follow:

· Permanent suspension of nuclear enrichment process;

· Cessation of financial and military supports to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah;

· Recognition of Israel as a legitimate Jewish state in the Palestinian territory;

Other issues such as the following may be subject to negotiations:

· Non-intervention in the domestic affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan and other Muslim states of the region;

· Human rights;

· Traffic of narcotic substances through the Iranian borders and territory;

· Lifting of the sanctions and embargo imposed upon Iran;

· Release of Iranian assets in the United States;

· Other issues of mutual interests.

Given that the United States major preoccupations fall within the periphery of Iranian “redlines” upon which apparently no negotiations can take place, the prospects for a comprehensive settlement of Iran-US differences appear far remote. Yet the two sides may engage in some kind of talks along with the 5+1 states without substantive outcome.

As we stated in our previous comments, the Islamic regime perceives that a normalization of relations with the United States not only will not promote its interests, but might have adverse impact upon its security and survival in the long-run. Therefore, it will raise the costs of any eventual settlement to the point impossible to bear by the Americans. Some of these requests already put forward by the Iranian president are of the kind impossible to achieve. These may be considered as the American redlines upon which no compromise can take place, such as: cessation the support of Israel and withdrawal of all forces from the region.

For these clear reasons and other grounds which we tried to explain briefly here, the prospect for a normalization of relations between Iran and the United States are very meager. The shadow of pessimism is already surrounding the preliminary diplomatic efforts. Therefore we should not expect a miracle to happen suddenly in this difficult game in the weeks and months to come. /


Ali Asghar Kazemi is Professor of Law and International Relations at the IAU, Science and Research Center, Department of Law and Political Science, Post-Graduate Program. Tehran, Iran. For detail see:

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