06/19/2012 12:52 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Mutual Concession Key to Make Negotiations Work in Moscow

The last meeting between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) dashed the optimism raised after the previous round of talks in Istanbul. After two days of intense negotiations and exchanging proposals, Iran and the West failed to lay the basis for a deal, and agreed to reconvene in Moscow on June 18. Although EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton outlined a step-by-step approach based on reciprocity earlier in Istanbul, the package proposed by the P5+1 in Baghdad failed to address such a principle. The P5+1 asked Iran to halt its uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level, send out its stockpile of more than 100 kilograms of its highly enriched uranium, and cease operations at the Fordow nuclear plant; meanwhile, they had too little to offer as incentives. Unsurprisingly, supplying Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) with fuel, providing safety upgrades for TRR and the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and selling aircraft spare parts were not sufficiently enticing for Tehran to stop its 20-percent uranium enrichment. Tehran needs a much more significant reward to underpin the legitimacy of a deal and make it presentable to the home audience. Ipso facto, negotiations with Iran are highly unlikely to work out in Moscow unless the West abandons its zero-sum viewpoint, drops its unilateral demands, and approach the process on the basis of mutual compromise.

In dealing with the Islamic Republic, it has not been that difficult lately to decipher Tehran's signals to the West over its nuclear program. Ahead of the negotiations in Baghdad, Tehran softened its rhetoric, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei implicitly supported the talks. Yet, the two sides failed to reach an agreement in Baghdad given their fundamental differences on some issues such as sanctions and enrichment. Notably, however, Iranian officials have avoided counterproductive rhetoric thus far and kept a positive tone regarding the Moscow talks. In an interview with the state TV, Iran's number two nuclear negotiator and a relative of Ayatollah Khamenei, Ali Baqeri, described Iran's approach in Moscow as rational and from a position of strength. He also voiced Iran's preparedness in taking "serious steps," and indicated that Tehran welcomes step-by-step reciprocity. In an allusion to ease of sanctions, Baqeri asserted that should the P5+1 take actions towards confidence-building, the prospect of the talks would be positive. More importantly, Supreme Leader's special advisor on international affairs Ali Akbar Velayati has raised optimism on the condition of some goodwill gestures by the West. By all accounts, recent developments on the Iranian side demonstrate that Tehran is still willing to reach an agreement.

Understanding Tehran's perspective

From Tehran's viewpoint, the nuclear crisis is a multidimensional case. Ideologically, it is closely intertwined with the discourse of resistance, an element of the regime's identity since its establishment in 1979. It was this element of resistance entrenched in Ayatollah Khomeini's political ideology that enabled him to muster support from Islamists to communists, and it is this element that keeps Iran from bowing to the enormous pressure being exerted by the West. Iran's revolutionary behavior under Khomeini was mainly due to the dominance of the resistance discourse over the country's foreign policy. Nonetheless, the omnipresence of this discourse has reduced throughout the last two decades. Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Iranian business-friendly elite have been preparing the establishment for a departure from its revolutionary status in order to join the international market. This has consequently turned Tehran's 'rejectionist' approach to a 'rational but reactive' style in negotiations, meaning that it will make concessions if they are reciprocated on the same scale. It is noteworthy that the rise of the most conservative elements of the Islamic Republic to power in 2005 by the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president has undermined this process but failed to entirely forestall it.

This partial departure from Khomeini's hardline revolutionary position, however, has failed to make a significant progress in Iran's relations with the West due to an array of other factors. In terms of nuclear negotiations, the fact that Iran sits across from the six world powers has underpinned Tehran's sense of insecurity and put it in a defensive mood that has further complicated the case. Undoubtedly, regime-change rhetoric and pressure-based policies have only deteriorated the situation. The imbalance of the number of the counterparts at the negotiation table has translated into unbalanced proposals while in order to inject confidence to the process and alleviate Iran's sense of insecurity, balance of concessions is required. Additionally, it is essential to take into account that Tehran's decade-long dispute with the international community over its nuclear program has turned its nuclear file into a national phenomenon being closely followed by the people of Iran. For this very reason, in his speech on the occasion of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, Supreme Leader Khamenei presented the audience with a detailed account of Iran's nuclear negotiations. This degree of national sensitivity regarding the nuclear program has increased by the cost of sanctions and made compromise more burdensome for Tehran if it is not reciprocated.

New approach is needed

In order to have negotiations succeed, a new approach is needed since the so-called dual-track policy has failed to bear fruits. Early after the negotiations in Baghdad, an anonymous U.S. official told Al-Monitor that the administration believes dual-track policy is working. "It will take some time for all of that [the dual track approach] to play out. We will do whatever we need to do to make that effective," the official stated. Nonetheless, a cursory retrospective glance casts doubts on such an assessment. When the dispute over Iran's nuclear program started almost ten years ago, Iran had no centrifuges in operation; currently it has thousands of them. Three years ago, Iran asked for 20-percent enriched uranium for Tehran Research Reactor and the West refused to provide it; it masters the technology now. As such, calling the dual-track approach effective is turning a blind eye to the facts on the ground.

The only viable option to end Iran's nuclear crisis is to start with the very basic principles of negotiation: mutual respect and reciprocity. The West should address Iran's concerns if Iran does the same, and concessions made by either side should be reciprocated by the other on the same scale. To balance the P5+1 recent proposal for the upcoming talks in Moscow, the possibility of sanctions relief should be added to the incentive package. It is very unlikely that Iran capitulates to the rising pressure since, as former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian stated, it is Iranian mentality and culture not to surrender to pressure. In addition, the West should take advantage of potential avenues for further cooperation with Iran. Non-nuclear cooperation between Iran and the West could help both parties overcome the atmosphere of distrust and boost their mutual understanding. The two can cooperate in various arenas including Iraq, Afghanistan, counternarcotics, Persian Gulf's security, and most urgently Syria. The Syrian crisis is an opportunity for the West to show it has accepted Iran's role in the region, and Tehran's cooperation could have a major impact on the situation in Syria.