Future of Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

On Wednesday, November 20th, the much-anticipated breakthrough in the nuclear talks is likely, in the light of growing signs of optimism by both sides in the marathon negotiation that has been going on for years and reportedly came very close to a surprise agreement at the previous round, only to be frustrated by the singular objections of France.

In response to both Iranian and international criticisms, the French government has been put on the defensive and its foreign ministry has issued a statement denying that the talks have failed and raising hopes for a deal at the upcoming round between Iran and the six world powers led by the United States. According to the various reports in the Western media, although the details of the secret negotiations have not been leaked to the public, nevertheless based on the US official statements it is possible to describe the impending deal as a “swap” of “limited sanctions’ relief” for certain nuclear concessions by Iran with respect to the level and dimensions of Iran's uranium enrichment program, enhanced nuclear transparency, and the like.

Thus, US Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly assured the skeptical members of US Congress that the nuclear deal entertained with Iran does not involve “95 percent of sanctions” imposed on Iran and therefore does not affect the main energy and financial sanctions, which will remain during a “six months” interim phase to explore a long-term solution. In response to its internal and external, i.e., Israeli, critics of the US nuclear diplomacy toward Iran, the Obama administration has denied that the deal will give Iran access to tens of billions of dollars of its frozen assets abroad, lowering the figure to mere “six or seven billions.”

Still, despite such assurances, the White House remains under fire for favoring a “bad deal” with Iran, which is why the right wing Wall Street Journal has praised France’s deal-break behavior above-mentioned, warning that the proposed deal would not dismantle Iran’s enrichment infrastructure. Not so, according to Kerry and the top US negotiator Wendy Sherman, who have defended the deal as a good one that curbs the Iranian nuclear program and “reverses some key aspects.”

The Rouhani government has brushed aside such criticisms as unfounded and the members of the nuclear negotiation team headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have repeatedly assured the public and the lawmakers that Iran will not give up its nuclear rights or enter into any agreement that would be lop-sided and fall short of a “win-win.” Citing “substantial progress” in the meeting of technical and financial experts in Vienna on October 30th and 31st, Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araqchi has echoed the growing optimism for a breakthrough agreement that would not cross Iran’s “red lines” on uranium enrichment “on Iran’s soil.”

From a social scientific point of view, however, it is important to devise reliable criteria to evaluate the merits of a potential nuclear deal in Geneva, by drawing on inter-disciplinary insights that would assist us with a better understanding of the “negotiation calculus.” This would mean tapping into a wide range of sources, ranging from computer science to statistical analysis to negotiation models to national security studies, etc., indeed a formidable undertaking for the sake of a systematic examination of the various “pros and cons” of a nuclear agreement. Unfortunately, almost all the debates on such a deal have transpired in a vacuum of systematic methodology and appropriate theoretical framework, which would equip us with non-arbitrary evaluative standards in order to determine the values of a nuclear agreement.

For sure, we are apt to arrive at a better, deeper, and more objective assessment by resorting to a scientific analysis that would seek to address the challenge of apt computational understanding of the detailed elements of a nuclear deal, although without necessarily boasting of resolving the inherent difficulties associated with such an approach. Following the insights of Kurt Friedrich Godel, one of the most prominent logicians of the twentieth century, “if we begin with a vague intuitive concept, how can we find a sharp concept to correspond to it faithfully?” To delve deeper into the subject of a “win-win” negotiation formula indeed requires the sharpening of our epistemic ‘tool kit’ and designing suitable benchmarks to evaluate the accuracy of predictions about the agreement’s overall worth, which is obviously a matter of not just numbers but also semantics and perception covering both tangibles and non-tangibles, e.g., prestige and identity.

Thus, for example, if there is a regional perception that Iran has agreed to serious concessions without receiving proportionate rewards, then this is bound to complicate Iran’s regional and national security calculations. On the other hand, if the short-term agreement carries the “seed” of dismantling Iran’s uranium enrichment program, thus undermining the notion of an Iranian successful negotiation, then the best way to respond by Iran is by carrying out a long calculation following a sequence of steps that are interconnected and out of which the variables demonstrating a “reasonable success” can be delineated. Obviously, Iran computes “win” or success according to its own national interests and not based on other countries’ interpretation of what a successful negotiation may look like, even though behind the whole “win-win” idea is the hope to reach common grounds as the basis for a “mutually-satisfying” agreement. Assuming that we are at the threshold of an agreement in Geneva, it may be worthwhile to point out some of the salient computational issues associated with solving this intricate and complex “nuclear chess” problem - with the help of methodologically, empirically, and theoretically-sound parameters. Obviously, this is far beyond the scope of a single article and we can simply highlight the main points.

Lending scientific accuracy to the interpretation of a nuclear deal is not easy and resembles resolving a puzzle that must take into consideration such variables as short and long-term net results, pairing the asymmetrical offers, the computational complexity associated with uneven impact on the various elements of national interests, preventing the deal’s degeneration into a ‘black hole’ of expanding Western demands stemming from their ‘politics of dispossession’ aimed at dispossessing Iran of its hard-earned nuclear fuel cycle, and the possibility of a “sanctions recoup” following a failed interim agreement due to Iran’s refusal of those demands.

Indeed, at this point, no a priori assumptions about the success or failure of an interim, short-term agreement to break the nuclear stalemate is possible and much depends on the “interactive proofs” that are subject to contesting political wills and the balance of forces in favor of or opposing the agreement. Given the parties’ probable lack of complete control over the evolving process, and the possibility of positive or negative integers that would string on the deal to different prospects, not to mention the “math barriers” in calculating the value of certain concessions by either side, the negotiation process is rife with potential setbacks. From the Iranian vantage, the continuity in negotiations is unsplittable, compared to the Western powers’ overemphasis on the “first steps,” which are invoked within their murkier “counter-proliferation” standards, although one should not overlook their “hidden parameters” vis-à-vis Iranian power. This points at a built-in ambiguity of Western approach in the negotiation process, which is rooted in the resistance toward Iran’s key demand on the right to enrich uranium.

Thus, from Iran’s point of view, the success of negotiation depends on the increasing sequence of real values attached to its NPT-based rights, whereas from the Western point of view it is the opposite scenario of decreasing value attached to these rights and their shrinking implementation to the point of a de facto nullification. Obviously the negotiation chasm between the two sides on this central question of Iran’s nuclear energy program must be bridged, otherwise a final agreement is out of the question.

In conclusion, the future prospect of a breakthrough in the Iran nuclear talks has perhaps never been brighter. Yet, it is still far from obvious that the US and its partners are ready to give up their sanctions-based “game of leverage” toward Iran by seeking a mutual “win-win.” This is the nub of ambiguity about their intentions in the talks, which requires immediate attention by the US in particular, in order to clarify the answer to this important question.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) .  Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

Source: Press TV

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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