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Iran and the US need a middleman – or two

As Iran and the US prepare for negotiations on Tehran's nuclear program, both sides should consider turning to middlemen. Turkey and Japan are perfectly positioned as trusted intermediaries to build a proposal that has a better chance at success than anything by the 'P5+1.'

By Mahsa Rouhi / January 29, 2013

Scientists in Iran surround a monkey ahead of a space launch. Iran said it had successfully sent the monkey into space on Jan. 28., which many took as a sign of its progress on missile development. As Western and Iranian negotiators plan for upcoming talks, op-ed contributor Mahsa Rouhi says: 'Only with intermediaries that are perceived as honest brokers by both sides can the Iranian nuclear negotiations break out of what has become a zero-sum game.'

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Cambridge, Mass.

This week, Iran sparked international concern again after it announced a successful launch of a monkey into space – a testament to the progress of its missile systems – and deflected reports of an explosion at its Fordrow nuclear facility. As Iran and the international community try to agree on a date and prepare for a new round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, it is time to reflect on the lessons learned from previous failed talks.

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Following the model of the Turkey-Brazil proposal considered in mid-2010, negotiators should once again turn to “middlemen” countries that can help fashion a deal that satisfies both Western and Iranian concerns. Turkey and Japan are perfectly positioned as trusted intermediaries to build a credible proposal that has a better chance of standing up to the scrutiny of Washington and Tehran than anything likely to be produced by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany).

Only with intermediaries that are perceived as honest brokers by both sides can the Iranian nuclear negotiations break out of what has become a zero-sum game.

There have been near misses in international efforts to strike a deal with Iran, but none came closer than the Turkey-Brazil proposal to resolving the fundamental demands of both the United States and Iran. At heart, Western powers want to ensure that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities, while Tehran wants to ensure it preserves its “right” to develop a peaceful nuclear program.

Based on an American proposal from the previous year, the 2010 Turkey-Brazil proposal would have allowed Iran to send large quantities of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey to be refined to medical reactor-grade purity, for the production of medical isotopes but not the development of a nuclear weapon.

It was a good idea in principle, and was too easily dismissed by the P5+1 negotiators when it was brought back to the table by a joint effort by Turkey and Brazil. One of the key reasons the Americans mentioned for rejecting the deal was that numbers for the amount of enriched uranium to be transferred out that were discussed in 2009 were already obsolete by 2010, as Iran had continued enriching uranium over the course of the negotiations.

As negotiators approach talks this time around, the specifics of an updated proposal along the lines of the Turkey-Brazil deal would have to be reworked, but the original approach was sound, and it is worth another try.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran have been consistently undermined by the adversarial relationship between Iran and the West. Decades of mutual distrust have made it nearly impossible to broker an agreement. The Turkey-Brazil negotiation circumvented this tension, and Turkish and Brazilian diplomats leveraged their warm relations with Iran, the United States, and European countries and their own status as rising powers in the international community to present themselves as honest brokers.

The need for credible intermediaries has not abated in the past year and a half. In fact, if there is any hope that a deal can still be reached, the chances of success will be best if both Iran and the P5+1 can work with intermediary countries that are trusted on both sides.


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