By Ali Vaez, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ali Vaez is senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. The views expressed are his own.
Seldom has there been so much anticipation of a breakthrough in talks over Iran’s nuclear crisis than is the case for the negotiations starting Tuesday in Geneva. But inflated hopes are dangerous, and the sobering reality of tough negotiations could quickly dash hopes and even derail diplomacy.
The reality is that despite the recent election of a new Iranian administration, one that has been keen to stress that a breakthrough could be just around the corner, it would be naïve to expect a decade-old impasse to be resolved in just two days. After all, Iran’s nuclear crisis is one of the most complex issues in international politics today. And the last time President Hassan Rouhani and his current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, were Iran’s nuclear negotiators – back in 2003 to 2005 – there were two years of talks over a crisis that was then barely a year old.
A deal today would be even harder to imagine. In 2003, Iran was struggling to assemble 164 centrifuges. Today, it has more than 18,000. Back then, Iran had one enrichment facility, one type of centrifuge, no fissile material stockpile and sought to enrich uranium to 5 percent. Now, it has two enrichment facilities, several types of advanced centrifuges, tons of fissile material and is enriching both to 5 and 20 percent levels. These advancements have come at a hefty price. Today, there are numerous sanctions backed by the United States and international community.
Despite the continued stalemate, unilateral concessions will not, and should not, occur. One reason for the abject failure of diplomacy over the past decade has been that each side hoped to coerce the other to fully capitulate. Yet surrender is dangerous in nonproliferation, as unfair deals beget unfaithful dealmakers. And negotiations and compromise will anyway almost by their very definition not produce outcomes that will be seen as ideal by all sides.
Negotiators should not, of course, let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But even if progress can be made, it is not up to one side to build confidence. Pretending that the ball is in the other’s court has been one of the most futile exercises of the past decade. Mistrust is marrow-deep and mutual. As such, the “concessions now, rewards later” formula will not work. Western doubts about Rouhani’s ability to deliver are matched by Tehran’s skepticism that the U.S. in particular can accept a deal with the Islamic Republic or that President Barak Obama has the political muscle to lift sanctions. Both sides should therefore have the courage to take steps to show their commitment to diplomacy.
Still, even then it would be wrong to expect progress in nuclear talks to translate into a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. The Iranian Supreme Leader’s nuanced reproach of Rouhani’s “inappropriate” steps during his visit to New York, where the president held a telephone conversation with President Obama after Zarif had held a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, was a reminder that Rouhani’s mandate is for the time being limited to resolving the nuclear issue.
So, how should progress be measured?
Instead of misguided expectations, success should be measured by taking into account the relatively negative starting point – the absence of talks for the preceding six months and a series of escalatory steps by all sides.
In previous negotiations, Iran and the West talked past each other as the former insisted on respect for its asserted right to enrich, and the latter on Tehran’s responsibilities to steer clear of acquiring nuclear-weapons capabilities. These issues should be dealt with simultaneously as negotiators push to increase the pace of diplomacy to generate positive momentum.
But the success of the talks may hinge on the two sides’ ability to agree on a vision of the endgame. For this to occur, the West would have to make clear the extent to which Iran could maintain and develop a civilian nuclear program, including a limited and intrusively monitored enrichment capability. Acknowledgment that Iran would continue to enrich on its soil could be interpreted by Tehran as de facto recognition of its right to do so, though that “right” simultaneously would be defined in a way that entails significant restrictions. It would then be up to the two sides’ experts to determine the technical details of the interim confidence building measures.
Misguided expectations have in the past often resulted in one side overplaying its hand. And it is true that miracles are rare in diplomacy. But as the old adage has it, “the miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water; but to walk on the earth.”