After several rounds of negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 group, it is now clear that Iran “may need other mechanisms different from the P5+1 to overcome the problem because the P5+1 mechanism is not efficient enough to make way for the achievement of a broad-based agreement” between the negotiating parties. Ali Ghannadi, The Editor of the International Section of Javan Daily, believes that Almaty 2 talks were somehow different from past rounds of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group and although no new grounds were broken in terms of substance, both Iran and the US and EU have announced that the negotiations will go on.
Following negotiations with Iran, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief who also leads the P5+1 group’s negotiating team, said that the two sides remained “far apart on the substance” of the talks, adding, “For the first time that I’ve seen, [there was] a real back and forth between us, where we are able to discuss details, to pose questions, and to get answers directly.” Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Turkey’s capital city of Ankara on Sunday, April 7, warned Iran that negotiations cannot go on for an unlimited period of time. He, however, emphasized that Obama administration believes that negotiations should continue. Also, a senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters on the sidelines of the negotiations that what happened in Almaty 2 was true negotiation. The same official added, “Among the interchanges described, was a 30-45 minute back and forth between the lead US negotiator at the talks, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Iran’s lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in which Sherman asked Jalili a series of specific questions and he responded.”
Both sides have clearly confirmed that no new ground has been broken in Almaty 2, but serious nature of negotiations has convinced all the involved parties to go on with the negotiations. Of course, no date and venue has been determined for the next round of talks.
What is main cause of difference?
Iran insists that there should be a clear-cut framework for the negotiations, so that, the process would have a beginning, a middle stage, and an ending. In this way, Iran argues, everybody would know what concession(s) each side should give in every step of the way and what they should expect in return. This process will probably end in the total lifting of the West’s sanctions against Iran, recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium, and giving of firm guarantees by Iran about lack of any deviation in its nuclear energy program toward a nuclear weapons program. The West has neither rejected, nor accepted this, but argues that at first, small steps should be taken to build confidence between the two sides. For example, they propose voluntary suspension of enrichment by Iran in return for the abrogation of certain parts of anti-Iran sanctions.
Tehran accepts the need for taking small, confidence-building steps, but notes that such steps should be “equivalent” in weight on both sides, concluding that “suspension [of uranium enrichment] in return for lifting of a small part of sanctions are not equivalent in weight.” The Western side, however, emphasizes that part of its existing demands are also among its “immediate concerns” which it cannot easily ignore.
Although this collection of differences caused Almaty 2 negotiations to end without a conclusive result, they also prompted both sides to engage in more transparent and more serious discussions than ever before, thus, shedding more light on the points of difference as well as their policy lines. This is why Ms. Ashton told reporters that the two sides were “far apart on the substance” of the negotiations though they “agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process.” An unnamed senior American official close to the negotiating parties also told reporters that “there may not have been a breakthrough [in Almaty 2 talks], but there was also not a breakdown.”
Despite all pessimism...
Despite all the pessimism which surrounds the possibility of finding a solution to the strategic nuclear standoff between Iran and the West, negotiations in Almaty clearly proved that there is no reason to stop the diplomatic process. Stopping this process will not only deprive both sides of the low-cost means of “diplomacy” and lead to further escalation of suspicions on both sides, but will also gradually usher the negotiating parties toward more security-based resolutions, which would be much costlier than the diplomatic process. Therefore, there is no reason for decision-makers who are closely involved in the negotiations both in Tehran, and the West to waste time over optimistic or pessimistic forecasts about whether negotiations between the two sides will finally achieve a conclusive result or not. The main focus should be on achieving a result. In this way, both parties to the negotiations will be able to avoid choosing more dangerous options.
Despite all odds, negotiations in Almaty proved that the United States and Europe, especially the United States, are faced with serious limitations for the achievement of a strategic solution to Iran's nuclear issue. This issue may have a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that the overall decision-making structure (at least) in the United States is too complicated to allow Obama administration to easily enter into any form of long-term processes, including one which would end in total abrogation of sanctions which have been imposed on Iran. This problem is so serious that some unofficial proposals offered to Iran only focused on the issue of lifting the European Union’s sanctions - not those of the United States. The details of this issue cannot be discussed here.
A misunderstanding as big as the distance from Tehran to Europe and US
Almaty 2 negotiations also showed that there are still serious misunderstandings between the two sides. Some observers who followed Almaty 2 talks have noted that Iranian, American and European delegations have not been able to communicate with one another in a suitable manner and, in a sort of saying, they did not understand one another. Part of this problem is due to differences in language, but an even more important part is due to differences between political cultures or what can be called the “diplomatic culture.” An American official close to negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Christian Science Monitor, “We do see the world differently.... We come from different cultures, different backgrounds, and different ways of solving problems. And so it takes a lot of time to understand each other and to understand what each other is saying... The devil is truly in the details.”
It seems that when the Iranian side says that it wants to see a firm framework for the negotiations which would have a “beginning,” a “middle process,” and an “ending,” this is not at all comprehensible for the Western parties in negotiations at the current level. Let’s go over the aforesaid American official’s remarks again: “We come from different cultures, different backgrounds, and different ways of solving problems.” Long years of the absence of bilateral contacts between Iran and the United States have apparently widened the gaps between the two sides.
A structure seven years old
Another serious problem which exists in this regard seems to be related to the very structure of the P5+1 group, on the one hand, and to individual negotiators, on the other hand. American sources close to negotiations have noted that Wendy Sherman and Saeed Jalili were engaged in a question and answer session for about 30-45 minutes. Saeed Jalili also confirmed this in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor when he said, “I like to think that we tried our very best to take as many questions as was possible to us.... We took a lot of time, taking those questions, providing responses, explaining our positions, our ideas, in great detail. This was so thorough that finally the members of [the P5+1] were asked, ‘Do you have any remaining questions?’ and nobody had any questions.”
To keep on the safe side and avoid pessimism, one may at least say that the Western negotiating diplomats (including deputy foreign ministers) are bound by limitations for the acceptance of the long-term process that Iran proposes. In simpler terms, while Iranian negotiators went to Almaty to find a long-term solution to the nuclear issue, it seemed that the European and American negotiators were not pursuing a similar goal. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the Western negotiating teams were low level, but it may have a number of implications at the same time.
Firstly, Iran may need new structures and mechanisms other than the P5+1 mechanism to overcome this problem. Tehran may even need different or parallel bilateral or unilateral mechanisms. Let’s not forget that before the existing framework for negotiations with the P5+1 came into being in 2006, Tehran was engaged in negotiations with the European troika (the UK, France and Germany, which were also known as EU3) for the resolution of its nuclear issue. However, due to exigencies of time, that framework gradually changed and the new framework has been in place for about seven years.
Perhaps it is not absolutely necessary for this framework to change, but working out other bilateral or unilateral frameworks in parallel may be of use to get the negotiations out of the current state of stalemate. It is noteworthy that the nature of the negotiating process may also cause problems.
In her news conference following Almaty negotiations, which unlike previous instances was done in the absence of Saeed Jalili, Ashton stated that the two sides remained “far apart on the substance” of the talks, but added, “For the first time that I’ve seen, [there was] a real back and forth between us, where we are able to discuss details, to pose questions, and to get answers directly.” By saying this, Ashton was apparently referring to the questions and answers which were exchanged between Jalili and Sherman.
All told, it really appears that it will not be possible to take any serious steps through a two-day negotiation process at the existing level and with the current proportions.
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