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Diplomatic Improvisations With Iran: The Hub and Spokes of a To-Be-Agreed Framework for the Upcoming Nuclear Negotiations

Co-authored by Maurizio Martellini

As the legendary U.S. diplomat and the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, the late Richard Holbrooke, once said in the very context of dealing with Iran in 2008, "diplomacy is like jazz - an improvisation on a theme." [Richard Holbrooke in the World: The Unquiet American, edited by Derek Chollet and Samantha Power, PublicAffairs, 2011, p. 347] The election of the former nuclear negotiator Dr. Hassan Rowhani as the new president of Iran has generated lots of hope in Iran and elsewhere for a new beginning. It also offers new opportunities, calls for recalibration of old tactics and improvisation on new approaches concerning the next phase of nuclear talks with Iran, which is supposed to start in the near future.

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the main thrust of the foreign policy of the United States toward Iran has been to contain and control its regional influence and to prevent developing its nuclear programs through sanctions, isolation, and more sanctions. As many authoritative studies, including a most recent one, "Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy" (released on April 17, 2013) -- "The Iran Project" -- which was an initiative of former U.S. most senior diplomats and security officials, have acknowledged, the intended consequence of the sanctions regime on the nuclear issue has been almost zero.

Moreover, sanctions, which were supposed to be means to an end, are morphed into a never-ending witch-hunt for the next entity in Iran. The undeniable reality of the current state of affairs and the projected future of the U.S.-led sanctions process is the continuation of the past vicious circle. It is analogous to a runaway freight train on a downhill path, with a non-existing (or functional) emergency brake, with multiple controllers/dispatchers -- White House, State Department, Defense Department, and Congress -- with differential mental models of the rapidly deteriorating situation. The only way to exert some sort of "control," in this context, is to create a fork on the way, layout a new track and try switching the runway train to this "side-track," before an eventual crash and inevitable catastrophic ending. (The last month's tragic train crash in Canada, which has killed 47 people and devastated the center of picturesque Lac-Mégantic, should be a sober reminder of what a runaway freight train can do...)

Some pundits caution that time for diplomacy is running out and Iran is rapidly approaching the nuclear "threshold" red-line and "breakout" capability. Thus, in order to expedite the process the U.S. should take the lead in dealing directly with Tehran on behalf of its allies; the only thing the past experience in dealing with Iran has taught us is that it has been the U.S., as the leader or "mobilizer" of the "Western" pact of P+1 (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council + Germany), to keep the keys for a peaceful or confrontation solution of the Iranian nuclear question.

Creating the common ground for protecting and preserving national interests of the U.S. and Iran is the prerequisite for any future negotiations between the two countries. This would define the center or the "hub" of the umbrella of an agreed framework between the U.S. and Iran concerning Iran's nuclear conundrum/quandary. And, based on our extensive research, we believe that the following minimum of seven "spokes" is needed to assemble and complete such framework.

1. The formal recognition by US and its P5+1 partners and the state of Israel of the inalienable rights of Iran to develop its peaceful nuclear technology and pursue the enrichment of uranium (under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) threshold of 20 percent) for peaceful applications under the NPT which Iran is a signatory to as a Nonnuclear Weapon States.

2. The agreement by Iran to pursue enhanced transparency with the IAEA; the operative modalities to do that include: a- the endorsement of the Additional Protocol of Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA; b- adhering to the Modified Code 3.1 of its Safeguards Agreement; can c- Iran joining the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

3. The commitment by U.S. and its European partners to help Iran to improve and upgrade the safety of its Soviet-style VVER-1000 nuclear reactor in the coastal city of Bushehr in the same manner as the West did with the original Temelin nuclear reactor in the Czech Republic. This international effort should utilize a consortium structure under the oversight of the IAEA with active participation members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that have expressed serious concerns about safety and environmental risks of Bushehr. This initiative would enable the Persian Gulf countries to forge a balance between national sovereignty and international responsibility, when it comes to nuclear safety, as radiation fallout doesn't discriminate or care about national boundaries. These countries would all be vulnerable to radiation fallout and water contamination from a nuclear accident in either of those countries. The GCC member countries are entitled to know the details of the safety measures for Bushehr and the same logic applies to Iran vis-à-vis the four reactors under construction by the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi.

4. The re-endorsement of the so-called Algiers Accords of January 19, 1981, between the U.S. and Iran (among its chief provisions are: 1) the U.S. would not intervene politically or militarily in Iranian internal affairs; 2) the U.S. would remove a freeze on Iranian assets and trade sanctions on Iran) and their inclusion in the inputs of any future P5+1 negotiation process towards Iran.

5. The methodology of any nuclear negotiation process must be based on the roadmap established be the so-called Moscow Proposal of 2012, namely: incremental, step-by-step and reciprocal in the deliverables by the P5+1 (i.e., removal of sanctions if possible, by successive Executive Orders) and by Tehran (i.e., settlement of the outstanding questions with the IAEA; visits to the military sites alleged to be involved in the so-called military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program; the swap of the 20 percent enriched uranium that has not been converted into fuel for research reactors).

6. The acceptance that any nuclear deal must be focused on the future, by guaranteeing that the Iranian nuclear material and facilities are only for peaceful purpose. The past allegations must be solved only through a proactive technical dialogue between the IAEA and Tehran under the clause of confidentiality that the Agency should grant to Iran.

7. The recognition that the nuclear negotiation process and related mechanisms can commence only after the acceptance of these principles, and not the reverse!

U.S. national interests can be served only through bilateral, face-to-face, dynamically-conducted, multitasking, basket-like diplomacy beyond the nuclear issue, based on the above septa framework and direct negotiation with the government of Iran. The two countries' common goal should be reaching at a grand deal -- a tangible, verifiable and sustainable security guarantee to Iran by the United States and its Western allies in return a complete opening of its nuclear programs to the IAEA to assure their peaceful nature. Furthermore, this grand deal should furnish security guarantees to Iran and, in parallel, its full and unconditional support to stabilize the broader Middle East environment from the Afghanistan, Iraq, to Syria and Lebanon.

Last but certainly not least, Israel with its special close ties with the U.S. is an important forceful actor in international affairs that should seriously be reckoned with in this context. However, recently, in his overzealous, though understandable, ensuring "never again" and pursuit of security of his homeland, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, is pushing the Obama administration for military action against Iran, if the upcoming round of nuclear negotiation with the new president of Iran fails. Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu should be reminded that most in the U.S. follow its founding father, Thomas Jefferson's advice: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be." And that's precisely what President Obama, despite all pressures, has been trying to do with Iran.

Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu's relentless strive for maximum long-term security for Israel could easily backfire.

Historically, Shiite Persians have probably been the most Jewish-friendly nation in the predominantly Sunni Middle East. The founding father of Israel, the late David Ben-Gurion has called Persia (Iran) as "our friend" and stated, "Persia, which in race and language is akin to Aryan India, is also a country of immemorial civilization...(and) Cyrus the Great, founder of the great Persian empire in the mid-6th century BCE, magnanimous and friendly to the conquered ...and the Jews described him as a Messiah of the Lord." [From "Like Stars and Dust: Essays from Israel's Government Year Book." David Ben-Gurion's articles written between 1949-1961, translated from Hebrew by Misha Louvish, published by the Ben-Gurion Research Center, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, Sede-Boqer Campus, 1997, p. 324 and 407.].

With falling of the first Netanyahu-goaded bomb on the Persian soil -- the land of the Cyrus the Great, both Cyrus and Ben Gurion will be rolling over in their graves (in Pasargad and in the Negev Deseret, receptively), and a mostly neutral and peace-loving nation of nearly 80 million will be transformed overnight to an arch-enemy of the state of Israel. Let's hope that the Jeffersonian wisdom restrains Mr. Netanyahu and his like-minded supporters in the U.S.

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at USC, was a Jefferson Science Fellow and a Senior Science and Engineering Advisor to the Office of Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State (2009-10). He is an expert on nuclear safety and has inspected many nuclear power plants around the world, including Chernobyl (in May 1997) and Fukushima Daiichi and Daini (in November 2012). Maurizio Martellini, a professor of physics at the University of Insubria, Italy, has been leading the Landau Network-Centro Volta (LNCV) in Como, Italy, which is a global network of international experts supporting global security, disarmament and cooperation. Meshkati and Martellini have co-written and presented policy white papers concerning US-EU-Iran relations, enriched uranium and nuclear fuel swap, and systematic integration of nuclear safety, security and safeguards frameworks.