Why Do Nuclear Negotiations with Iran Always Fail?

Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program between the P5+1 – the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany – and Iran are supposed to begin soon. In view of the setbacks that the Democrats and the President suffered in the midterm elections, the Obama administration needs to appear tough with Iran, which explains why it has been claiming that the United States will enter the negotiations from a position of strength, and will make tough demands on Iran. Even before the elections setback, the administration had decided to get tough with Iran, which is why, despite the trilateral agreement between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil for swapping Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) with fuel for Tehran research reactor (TRR), the U.S. pushed for the approval of a new round of economic sanctions by the UNSC, Resolution 1929, and followed it up by unilateral sanctions of its own.

The sanctions imposed on Iran have been hurting ordinary Iranians by contributing significantly to the dramatic increase in the price of practically everything, and making commerce with the rest of the world, particularly with the European Union (EU), Iran’s major commercial partner, much more difficult. Despite this, as well as internal instability that resulted from Iran’s disputed presidential election of last year, the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be confident, because Iran’s stockpile of LEU has grown significantly, Iran has gained considerable experience in enriching uranium to the 19.75 percent level required for the TRR, and the Bushehr nuclear reactor will be coming online soon. 

But the negotiations will not succeed if the P5+1 still insist on Iran giving up its fundamental rights under Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to having the complete cycle for producing the LEU. There is a whole history of such negotiations between the two sides over Iran’s nuclear program, which have never produced any tangible results. The reason is simple: the West has always made unreasonable demands on Iran and, perhaps most importantly, has allowed itself to be influenced by Israel, a non-signatory of the NPT and a nation with anywhere between 75 and 400 nuclear warheads that has, nevertheless, been making bogus warnings about the danger of a nuclear Iran. Let us review the history quickly. 

Constructive dialogue: In the 1990s major EU countries began the so-called constructive dialogue with Iran, which meant that they had extensive commercial relations with Iran, but also criticized it over various issues, ranging from Iran’s involvement in some terrorist operations in the EU to the state of human rights in Iran. But, in April 1995, President Bill Clinton imposed total economic sanctions on Iran, after Iran, in a gesture of reconciliation, had awarded a contract to Conoco to develop an offshore oil field in the Persian Gulf. As Iran saw it, having dialogue with the EU – the closest U.S. ally – was not compatible with the U.S. sanctions. Hence, the dialogue did not produce any tangible result. 

The Sa’dabad Agreement: On October 1, 2003, Iran signed the Sa’dabad Agreement with Britain, France, and Germany (the E3), agreed to sign the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), carry out its provisions on a voluntary basis until it is ratified by the Majles (Iran’s parliament), and suspend its nuclear program. Iran did carry out all of its obligations under the agreement.  

The Paris Agreement: On November 14, 2004, Iran and the E3 signed in Paris another agreement, reaffirming the commitments that they had made in the Sa’dabad Agreement. The agreement stipulated that, "the E3/EU and Iran have agreed to begin negotiations, with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements. The agreement will provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. It will equally provide firm guarantees on nuclear, technological, and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues."  

But, both the Sa’dabad and Paris agreements ultimately failed because, despite promising to address Iran’s security concerns and offering extensive economic incentives, the E3 failed to deliver its part of the bargain. Its proposal was submitted to Tehran in early August 2005. But, it contained only vague promises for the distant future and no security guarantee that Iran will not be attacked, in return for the elimination of a solid fact on the ground – Iran’s nuclear facilities. A European diplomat was quoted as saying, "we gave them a beautiful box of chocolate that was, however, empty."  

Mohammad Khatami, the reformist Iranian president at that time, had warned the European diplomats in advance of formal submission of their proposal that it would be rejected by Iran, unless the E3 addressed Iran’s concerns. They did not pay any attention to Khatami’s warning. As expected, the E3 proposal was swiftly rejected. At the same time, Khatami left office and hard-line Ahmadinejad was elected president. 

The June 6, 2006 proposal: By May 2006, the Bush administration was deeply trapped in the Iraq quagmire. So, Bush agreed reluctantly to join the E3 in the negotiations with Iran. In a meeting with Ali Larijani, then Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Javier Solana who was in charge of foreign policy of the EU, proposed a "fresh start" for negotiating a "comprehensive agreement with Tehran." The EU proposed to help Iran construct light water nuclear reactors, not directly but through an international consortium, and to suspend discussion of Iran’s nuclear dossier in the UNSC that had been sent there in February 2006. But, the EU+US demand was still the same: Iran had to completely suspend its nuclear program. 

But, on July 31, 2006, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1696, calling on Iran to suspend its nuclear program. In an article in 2007 I explained why sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the UNSC and the subsequent Resolutions against Iran filed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter are legally dubious at best. Eric Brill reanalyzed the issue recently and added careful arguments to what I had already stated. Iran had warned that if the UNSC adopted any resolution, it will stop negotiating. Thus, the new proposal did not go anywhere either. 

The May 2, 2008 proposal: the EU presented to Iran another "improved" proposal, promising to work with Iran on constructing a modern network of nuclear reactors with a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel, and to discuss political and economic issues as well. But the condition for starting the negotiations was the same: Iran had to completely suspend its nuclear program. By then, however, Resolutions 17371747, and 1803 had been approved by the UNSC, imposing sanctions on Iran. Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, had also been replaced by the hardliner Saeed Jalili. In meetings with the EU delegation in Geneva from July 17-19, 2008, Jalili rejected the demand for the suspension, but offered to negotiate everything. Given that Iran has always considered the UNSC Resolutions against it as illegal, it was clear that it would not suspend its nuclear program. 

The guaranteed fuel supply for Iran, while seemingly attractive, is unreliable. There is a long history of deep distrust of the West by the Iranians that goes back at least a century, from the British and Russian empires opposing Iran’s development and siding with the counter-revolutionaries during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1908, to the CIA coup of 1953 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, France not giving Iran its share of the LEU in return for Iran’s investment in Eurodif, Russia violating all of its bilateral treaties with Iran, and the U.S. breaking its promise under the Algiers Accord not to interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs. In September 2008 the UNSC approved yet another resolution against Iran, Resolution 1835, reaffirming the previous Resolutions. 

The October 21, 2009 proposal: the IAEA plus the U.S., France, and Russia negotiated with Iran a deal under which Iran would send 54 percent of its stockpile of the LEU to Russia and France for enrichment and purification, and in return would receive fuels for the TRR, the medical nuclear reactor that provides isotopes to 850,000 patients annually. Iran agreed to the deal, but demanded that the swap take place in Iran and be carried out in several stages, demands that could easily be met. But they were rejected by the U.S. and its allies. 

The May 17, 2010 AgreementIran, Turkey, and Brazil announced that they reached an agreement under which Iran will send 1200 kg of its stockpile of the LEU to Turkey to be stored and safeguarded there by the IAEA, and receive in return 120 kg of uranium fuel at 19.75 percent for the TRR. The U.S. and its allies ignored the deal, even though it was similar to the October 2009 agreement, and pushed the UNSC to approve tough sanctions against Iran under Resolution 1929 on June 9, 2010. 

So the play has been repeated again and again. The actors may have changed, but the script has not: The West demands that Iran set aside its most important card in its negotiations with the West, namely, its uranium enrichment program, in return for some promises that may or may not be fulfilled, while President Obama has refused to officially take the option of military attacks on Iran off the table.

Iran has contributed its share to the failure of the negotiations. It has delayed providing some information to the IAEA, which when finally provided contained no smoking gun but only increased suspicion, delayed some inspections, and did not declare constructing the Qom enrichment facility, even though it was not legally required to. There was no reason for rejecting the October 2009 agreement, and then accepting it in May 2010. These actions, while mostly inconsequential, have only provided propaganda materials for the War Party and the Israel lobby in the U.S. 

But, the fact remains that, despite one of the most intrusive inspections of the nuclear program of any NPT member in its entire history, the IAEA has not unearthed any credible evidence for a secret nuclear program in Iran, keeps certifying that there has been no diversion of the declared nuclear materials and facilities to non-peaceful purposes, but keeps repeating that it cannot certify that the program is for peaceful purposes. Unlike his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA Director-General Yukio Amano has demonstrated a willingness to get the IAEA involved in the politics of the issue, hence politicizing an agency whose tasks are only technical and scientific.  

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the U.S. announcement of the sale of $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in the name of contributing to the "stability" of the Middle East, and in parallel another huge transfer of modern weapons to Israel. How such a huge transfer of arms to Saudi Arabia, a nation that neither needs them nor can absorb them, and to Israel, a nation that is constantly trying to provoke a military attack on Iran, will contribute to peace and stability in the volatile Middle East, particularly when Iran’s armed forces have access to only obsolete or 2nd-rate armaments that are for defensive purposes, is beyond the comprehension of any reasonable person. 

Can new negotiations with Iran ever succeed? They can, if the U.S. and its allies are willing to learn from the past failures, and set their goal as not dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, but making it completely transparent by convincing Iran that it is in its interest to restart implementing the provisions of the Additional Protocol that it implemented for over two years from late 2003 to early 2006. The West must also recognize its double standards for Iran’s nuclear program on the one hand and that of Israel on the other hand. So long as such double standards exist, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a long-term solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi also suggest several ways for improving the chances of success. In particular, they suggest that, (1) the U.S. try to reach out to all factions in Iran; (2) involve Turkey and Brazil, who convinced Iran to sign the May 2010 agreement; (3) do not allow failure to get most of Iran’s stockpile of the LEU out of the country to scuttle the entire negotiations; (4) have no illusion that reaching an agreement with Iran will be easy, after 31 years of enmity, and thus do not set superficial deadlines, and (5) most importantly, do not forget the gross and systematic violations of human rights of the Iranians on a daily basis. The ultimate solution for addressing Iran’s nuclear program is for Iran to become a democracy, as Shirin Ebadi and I stated in a 2006 article.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.