Symbolic Importance of the Venue of Negotiations in Diplomatic Efforts

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ali Omidi
Assistant Professor of International Relations, University of Isfahan-Iran

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has recently accused both the Western powers and Iran of “childish behavior” due to their inability to agree on the venue of the next round of talks over Tehran’s nuclear energy crisis. On the other hand, a spokesperson for the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, told BBC Persian on January 26, 2013, that Iran had rejected a proposal by the P5+1 group (which consists of the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) for negotiations to be held in Turkey’s port city of Istanbul on January 28 and 29. They alleged that the refusal proved that Iran is trying to kill time. The Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, however, rejected the allegation of Ms. Ashton’s spokesperson about Iran trying to kill time. He said, “We have always announced that we are ready to continue negotiations until reaching a final result and have never left the negotiations.” Salehi also touched on the venue of negotiations saying that Iran had proposed Egypt as the venue which had been welcomed by political officials in Cairo.

The Iranian minister further noted that other countries including Kazakhstan, Sweden, and Switzerland have also indicated their interest in hosting nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1. Finally, the two parties to the negotiations have chosen Kazakhstan as the venue of the negotiations and it seems that Iran's concerns have been also taken into consideration.

Apart from its relationship to Iran's national interests during the current critical juncture of the country’s history, this rhetorical confrontation also brings one question to the mind: Is the venue of negotiations basically important in diplomatic effort?

The history of world diplomacy shows that the venue of any kind of negotiations can be actually of significance, especially if one country could be able to convince the opposite party or parties to carry out negotiations on their own soil. This issue is of high symbolic political importance to the host country as it would allow the host to categorically claim that it has not remained passive toward the problem engaging the negotiating parties. Of course, countries engaged in difficult talks seldom accept to host those talks. To solve this problem, three solutions have been proposed in the history of the world diplomacy: (1) choosing a neutral place as venue; (2) choosing a place close to all the negotiating parties; and (3) holding negotiations alternatively in the capitals of negotiating parties.

Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands have been traditionally among the most popular venues for various kinds of international negotiations. This has been especially true about the first two countries which are considered neutral in diplomatic terms. Vienna, the capital city of Austria, has one more advantage which is the historical connection between this city and development of the modern diplomacy following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and later conferences which led to the formulation of conventions related to the diplomatic and consular rights from 1961 to 1963. The Hague, which has been chosen as the tribunal to hear Iran – US case, is another example of neutral places which are suitable for hosting negotiations. Since Iran is currently negotiating with the European countries over its nuclear energy program, perhaps, Tehran does not find either of these places as suitable venues for talks. However, if there are good alternatives, Tehran may be able to accept them.

The second option, which would be more face-saving, is to choose a venue for negotiations that would stand equal distance from the capital cities of negotiating parties. If both sides agreed to hold negotiations at such a place which would be geographically intermediate between them, it would be both a suitable choice, and face-saving for all sides. During the Cold War, Vienna was a good place for negotiations between hostile parties because it stood at an almost equal distance from Moscow and the capital cities of the European member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Egypt and Turkey are currently playing the same role and are intermediate locations for future negotiations between Iran and other negotiating parties.

Holding negotiations in intermediate countries is so exciting for all parties to negotiations that a country may easily ignore a neutral destination in favor of conducting negotiations on the soil of an ally negotiator provided that it is located equidistance to both sides of talks. For example, when the former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was offered with contingent options on the venue of the summit meetings between the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States in 1986, he chose two options: the UK’s capital city, London, and the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. Although both Britain and the United States were members of NATO, the leaders in Washington and Moscow also believed that the negotiations should be held at an intermediate location. This is why both sides agreed on Reykjavik as the venue of talks.

Finally, if there is need to prolonged negotiations, countries can agree on holding talks in a rotational way in the capital cities of involved parties which will also allow them to save face. Of course, the most difficult decision in this state is to choose the country which would play the first host to talks. Such a choice would depend on some kind of reconciliation among them as well as mutual trust. Pursuant to settlement of conflicts between Angola and Namibia in 1988, the two countries’ capital cities were chosen on a rotational basis as the venue of negotiations which were carried out through their joint commission. The same trend has been used for choosing the venue of summit meetings of the European Union member states as well as the member states of the Council of Europe. If the P5+1 member countries do the same in nuclear talks with Iran, it would greatly help to reduce tension between negotiating parties and will also help to build trust among them.

Key Words: Venue of Negotiations, Symbolic Importance, Iran-P5+1, Nuclear Talks, Kazakhstan, Omidi

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