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.'

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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.'

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.

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.

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.

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.

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