Two former Iranian parliamentarians and three American experts discussed a January 7 open letter that put forth a framework for direct nuclear negotiations and its potential for a diplomatic resolution.
On January 24, the Middle East Program and International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, “A Proposal for the Resolution of the Iranian Nuclear Standoff” with Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, former Member of the 6th Iranian Parliament and CEO of the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy; Seyed Aliakbar Mousavi, former Member of the 6th Iranian Parliament, Researcher, and Human Rights Advocate; George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies and Director of the Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Jim Walsh, International Security expert and Research Associate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program; and Robert S. Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event. Jane Harman, President, CEO, and Director of the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.
Haghighatjoo, one of the seven parliamentarians who wrote the January 7 open letter to the leaders of Iran, focused on the background and reasoning behind the proposal. She felt that President Obama's second term and openness to bilateral talks presented a “golden opportunity” to pursue negotiations, together with the “crippling” effect of sanctions in Iran, which makes the government “ready for a new round of negotiations.” Haghighatjoo emphasized that successful talks need to make both sides feel they will get something out of negotiations, and she identified “the most fundamental issues” as nuclear enrichment and sanctions relief. On the nuclear issue, she noted that the P5+1 goal of Iran's compliance with the NPT and Iran's goal of the right to enrich are not mutually exclusive. Turning to sanctions, she discussed how they are working counter to negotiations by making Iranians' main concern “day-to-day survival,” a scenario in which democracy is a “luxury demand” and the West loses its “social capital.” Haghighatjoo hoped that once these fundamental concerns are addressed, international powers can work to create a “more open, democratic status quo” in Iran that could allow civil society and activists to address Iran's human rights issues. Haghighatjoo also cautioned that any nuclear negotiations will need the “full engagement of the United States,” which should talk directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei, who is in charge of strategy, not the president or cabinet of Iran, who have “nothing to do with these nuclear talks.”
Mousavi, another of the signatories to the open letter, followed up on Haghighatjoo's last point, discussing the role and incentives of Supreme Leader Khamenei in any potential negotiations. He emphasized that in Iran’s current political climate, Khamenei “needs at least a small victory.” He discussed the historical tension between the supreme leader, the president, and the parliament and how Khamenei cannot contradict Ahmadinejad too much in the wake of the disputed 2009 elections for risk of eroding the state's central authority. According to Mousavi, the supreme leader wants a resolution to the nuclear issue to show to the reformists in politics, “I won, you lost,” referencing their own failed attempts in 2004 to resolve the nuclear issue. In this context, even a guarantee of the right to enrich to 5 percent—a principle most Iranians agree on regardless of political orientation—would be a domestic win for Khamenei. Mousavi referenced a recent interview between Foreign Minister Salehi and the World Policy Institute in which Salehi indicated that Iran is “ready to recognize the concerns of the West” and “mitigate” them. Khamenei and the Iranian government just need to put forth an “incentive package” for the West to restart negotiations that would be mutually beneficial.
Perkovich turned back to the open letter, likening it to a “sketch of a house” that needs many future details to be hammered out before completion, but provides a starting point from which to begin construction. Perkovich elaborated on the questions and possible details that could emerge surrounding the issue of enrichment. He felt that “Iran has won this issue” already, but a formal concession will need to be made by the P5+1 to ensure diplomatic resolution. Such a concession should be held off until the deal is finalized, which will discourage other countries from mimicking Iran in developing nuclear programs before reaching negotiations. Perkovich also discussed how “other dimensions have to be addressed” regarding enrichment, most notably that of IAEA inspections to make sure that Iran's program remains peaceful and compliant. Furthermore, any final agreement on enrichment “needs to be not country specific,” so that the deal Iran makes can be “tolerable as a precedent for other countries” while showing Iran that it is not being “picked on” or singled out for its program.
Litwak questioned whether Tehran is “in a position to take yes for an answer” regarding nuclear negotiations, despite the “propitious” timing of the open letter. Litwak felt that the framework in the open letter could see success, noting that Iran is not dashing toward weaponization: although Iran has the right under the NPT's Article IV “to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” it is also bound by Article II, which prohibits nuclear weapons or explosive devices. Litwak also identified the nuclear issue as a proxy for debate within Iran over the role Iran should have in the outside world: if Iran opens up to nuclear talks, it may achieve greater integration into the international community, but such integration also threatens regime survival by exposing Iran to outside political forces. Thus a possible nuclear agreement also has “regime survival implications.” Returning to his opening remarks, Litwak questioned whether Supreme Leader Khamenei is willing to risk the regime to resolve the nuclear issue.
Walsh discussed the potential framework for negotiations as outlined by the open letter, calling a bilateral model “useful.” However, he felt that dialogue need not necessarily be “transparent,” as too much coverage of talks can allow media outlets to declare domestic “winners” and “losers” in the deal, discouraging negotiators from offering any potentially controversial concessions. Walsh also felt that Iran in particular needs long-term guarantees and protocols that may be difficult to implement. For instance, the timetable for lifting sanctions proposed in the open letter would be difficult for negotiators to control; in the United States, such action depends on the cooperation of Congress. Walsh also criticized the letter's call for 5 percent enrichment, saying that “enrichment is not in the NPT” and it “opens the gate” for other countries to develop nuclear programs of their own. He conceded that Iran will continue to enrich uranium regardless, and argued that it is more useful in this context for negotiators to focus on the number and compliance of nuclear plants within Iran. Walsh concluded that talks need to “break expectations” and expand their topics beyond enrichment and sanctions to allow for greater leeway in overall negotiations.
By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program