P5+1 and Iran: finding common ground?

This week, representatives of Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany), also known as the E3+3, will meet in Geneva on Thursday and Friday in an attempt to make progress on resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Anticipation is now building for some clear signs that each side is agreeing to measures that will convince the other side of intentions to follow through on a long-term game plan.

The meeting in Geneva comes on the heels of an “expert” meeting held in Vienna (Reuters/Oct. 31) –focused on sanctions and more technical details that will pertain to the upcoming high-level political discussions. That meeting, and the prior one in mid-October, left uncertain how much progress had been made so far. Expectations have been high since talks resumed after Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s new President in August, and since then, attitudes on both sides seemed as if they might be more cooperative. One possible indicator of progress, albeit on a separate track: Iran held a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week to address the unresolved “military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program, and their joint statement said that they had a “very productive meeting” and would meet again on November 11th in Tehran.

Scholar and former senior U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar recently wrote a commentary for The Washington Post, positing that Iranian leaders might make a decision to pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent if they felt threatened enough militarily. He thus advises the P5+1 to refrain from taking an even harder line, but instead, to take advantage of this opportunity to build a better relationship with Iran, arguing for diplomacy in its “fullest sense” to find “enough common ground to reach an agreement that both sides will want to uphold”.

There are those who see such an approach as a risky venture because they reason at this point that Iran will pursue nuclear weapons and use any extra time allotted from soft diplomacy to push full steam ahead on a clandestine weapons program. Effective prevention of Iran acquiring the capability, they reason, may be the only way to slow the inevitable because there is no way of dissuading the country from developing nuclear weapons if it were able to do so.

BASIC Executive Director Paul Ingram and Princeton scholar and former Iranian official Hossein Mousavian explore this question as part of their broader article: Finding a Way Out of the Nuclear Dispute with Iran, recently published by BASIC. The authors discuss how prevalent this assumption is because key powers -particularly the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) have such a strong attachment to nuclear weapons. Over half a century of deep mistrust between Iran, and Western and other regional powers, further help to drive these perceptions. They contend, however, that nuclear weapons might not have the deterrence value many assume, and may be less attractive to key decision-makers in Tehran than many elsewhere assume. Many non-nuclear weapon states around the world do not see possession of these weapons as holding the same status as the nuclear weapons possessors.

Ingram and Mousavian also highlight Iran’s choices in recent history – suggesting that it has actively chosen not to use WMD – and that there are reasons to believe that it will not in the future – though they admit that precedent alone would not necessarily preclude Iran from possibly choosing to develop nuclear weapons at some point. They suggest that further reinforcing the value of membership in international arms control treaties and organizations of which Iran is already a member will improve perceptions around security.

Understanding that little now may be gained from obtaining nuclear weapons, and that nuclear weapons status has dropped since the end of the Cold War, helps to reinforce the value of being a Non-Nuclear Weapon State of the NPT. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is travelling to the Middle East this week, including to Israel and Saudi Arabia – two countries that have been extremely leery of more active diplomacy with Iran and the potential for the United States to soften its actions against one of their key rivals in the region. The Secretary of State will have many critical issues to discuss with officials from those countries, and a worthwhile part of those discussions would include encouragement for cooperation on the process of moving toward a conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East, of which these countries, and Iran, would ultimately be a part.

More positively focusing on these arms control agreements could provide part of the common ground Dr. Pillar speaks of. The diplomacy going on now could ultimately serve as an example of how to use these mechanisms to roll back tensions and build trust, but also help to build stronger norms and narratives so that other actors in the region will begin to see credible value in these arrangements as well. Relying more on pressure and the threat of force right at this time risks losing an opportunity for a genuine resolution to the crisis, and could also further damage the NPT regime and thereby harm the interests of Iran, the United States, and other countries in the longer-term.

Please note, on November 12th in Washington, DC, BASIC will hold a Strategic Dialogue breakfast on nuclear weapons: “Cost and benefits to US strategic interests from UK renewal of Trident”. Click here for more information and to register.

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