Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


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.'

(Page 2 of 2)

Turkey remains well placed to facilitate a new agreement – it is Iran’s bridge to Europe and the West. Ankara has been eager to assert itself in the global arena and has a vested interest in the Iranian nuclear negotiations succeeding. Turkish officials would like to avoid a regional conflagration that would disrupt trade and could spill over into neighboring countries, and they would also like to avoid an Iranian bomb that could shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Threading that needle would be a diplomatic coup for Turkey. This mediation process could also help bring Iran and Turkey closer to overcome recent tensions over the Syrian crisis.

Skip to next paragraph

Although Turkey could go it alone or work with a multitude of other partners, it should consider joining forces with Japan in making a new offer to the parties. A longtime consumer of Iranian oil exports, Japan has maintained strong diplomatic relations with Iran since the Islamic Revolution. Despite its vocal criticism of Iran’s opaque nuclear program, and particularly Iran’s refusal of international inspections, Japan was a strong supporter of the Turkey-Brazil deal.

Given Brazil's deep frustration with Washington's rejection of the 2010 Turkey-Brazil deal, Japan would bring a fresh and more optimistic angle to the negotiating process. Brazil could join the venture as the process moves along, but Japan, with its enduring US alliance, is better positioned to pioneer the talks.

Although Japan’s civilian nuclear program has been more of a cautionary tale since the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, the country has impeccable nonproliferation credentials. In fact, many Iranian politicians recognize Japan as a model of what a strong civilian nuclear program could be. But perhaps most important, substituting Japan for Brazil as a partner with Turkey could also bring into play an intermediary with stronger ties and deeper reserves of trust in Washington.

Within the adversarial context of US-Iran negotiations, neither country perceives itself as winning unless the other is seen as losing. This has tied negotiators’ hands in the past and unnecessarily stymied diplomatic efforts.

Iran’s nuclear program is a source of national pride, and Iranian officials know better than to make any concessions that could be framed as giving in to the West – a perception that would undermine their credibility domestically as well as their tactical position abroad. Concerns about appearing soft on Iran have prevented US officials from making concessions as well, and American policy has often tended to be purely punitive without sufficient consideration for whether punishment is likely to affect Iran’s conduct.

If rising powers can negotiate a new agreement, American and Iranian officials will have to decide whether they can take “yes” for an answer. Without finding a way to circumvent the adversarial tenor of the current negotiations, though, there will be no win-win proposals, and therefore no deal.

The foundations of a Turkey-Japan negotiation with Iran have been laid in decades of dialogue with Tehran and long-established relations focused on energy supplies. Most important, Turkey and Japan continue to maintain strong trade relations with Tehran, which allows them to include economic incentives in a potential proposal. The P5+1 cannot offer such incentives unless they lift a number of sanctions, which seems highly unlikely at the first stage.

A Turkey-Japan proposal would allow the US and Iran to save face and make concessions while decreasing the domestic risks of appearing weak and giving in to the pressures of rivals.

While it is unlikely that a grand bargain is on the horizon, it is past time for some constructive, measured steps. Changing the players in the next round of negotiations by bringing in countries that both Iran and the United States trust is a smart step that could produce a win-win for everyone. 

Mahsa Rouhi is a research associate at MIT’s Center for International Studies.


  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Endeavor Global, cofounded by Linda Rottenberg (here at the nonprofit’s headquarters in New York), helps entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Linda Rottenberg helps people pursue dreams – and create thousands of jobs

She's chief executive of Endeavor Global, a nonprofit group that gives a leg up to budding entrepreneurs.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!