Lessons learned from the protracted Iranian nuclear file | Power & Policy

Lessons learned from the protracted Iranian nuclear file

Mansour Salsabili

By Mansour Salsabili

Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

(This commentary appeared first on GlobalPost.com)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Continuing to insist on sanctions against Iran will produce a bad deal for America.

Why? Because this week Iran is putting on the table in Baghdad a number of concrete and tension-reducing offers in response to the earlier requests of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

These offers will have the strong support of Russia and China, and may attract positive votes from other European delegations as well. This will leave the US administration, which cannot force Congress to end sanctions, in the corner and in a passive position in any future talks.

In the second round of the current negotiation — between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — any forward looking plan will need to be comprehensive, including all aspects of a final deal. However a comprehensive approach cannot be implemented in a single shot or in haste, but rather in a step-by-step process that produces concrete results for each step in turn. The final deal may commence from particular unresolved issues involving the Iranian nuclear program and then extend to more general questions of regional cooperation and even peace in the Middle East.

The success of the April 14 meeting in Istanbul between the six world powers and Iran was based on acceptance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basic framework for the negotiation. The crucial point in this agreement is how to manage technical assurances to secure nonproliferation, without constraining Iran’s inalienable right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. This is possible only through mutual confidence building — something that was left in disarray in past efforts at negotiation.

The first way to secure mutual confidence is to avert confrontation to focus on collaboration: Cooperative and not confrontational behavior is needed to prepare a constructive, sustainable and encouraging environment. It is counter-productive to prejudge Iran as a proliferator and expect Tehran to cooperate. No one should expect Iran to sacrifice its sovereignty and its right to enrichment for peaceful nuclear uses in response to unsubstantiated allegations.

Here the vital task is clarifying and resolving in this case the inherent tension between the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s prohibition on proliferation and provision of the right to nuclear energy. This is not an easy job.

Concrete proposals need to be reciprocated to make progress not only possible, but also sustainable and irreversible. For this reason, the parties should address the issues that are most readily resolved first. A simultaneous swap of Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium for a similar amount of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor could come first, to reduce any concern about proliferation and to increase mutual confidence.

In exchange, new sanctions on Iran’s oil industry and Central Bank must be eased, or at least postponed, until the next round of negotiation to pave the way for the realization of future steps.

Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator Saeed Jalili, right, chats with EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 23, 2012. AP PHOTO

Clearing up questions about past Iranian nuclear activity is the most difficult issue at hand. Its resolution requires a lot of trust on both sides. Confidence building through transparency and supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency should go along with respect for confidentiality.

This subject is particularly sensitive in Iran because of incidents such as the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists during the past few years. Issues involving dual use technology are open to different interpretations, and must be treated as highly confidential. Resolution of these issues should come later in the process, as confidence increases.

In the meantime, fact-finding missions could continue to take place along the way as a step to verify that no previous military nuclear capability or undeclared facility in Iran now exists. To avoid prolonging such missions, let’s recall that other nuclear cases, such as Sweden’s, resolved with expanded additional protocol to secure the future rather than dig into the past.

”Every weapon is strongest before shooting,” is an old truism. Sanctions as the silver bullet of the West against Iran have already been fired and now it is time to compromise. Iran will adapt its economy and find its way around sanctions to gain access to the international community.

The passive US reaction to the current negotiations would result in a more polarized world and a loss to the United States and other struggling western economies as well.

Mansour Salsabili is on leave from Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He participated in a number of efforts ranging from UN reforms to the Non-Aligned Movement. The views expressed are entirely his own.

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