Getting Serious about Nuclear Talks with Iran

Comments by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei on negotiating with Iran:

Q: Had the Bush administration been more flexible, do you think it could have had a deal to freeze the Iranian enrichment program in its experimental phases?


A:
There is no way you are able to deny them the knowledge. But if they do not have the industrial capacity, they do not have weapons. It is as simple as that. I have seen the Iranians ready to accept putting a cap on their enrichment [program] in terms of tens of centrifuges, and then in terms of hundreds of centrifuges. But nobody even tried to engage them on these offers. Now Iran has 5,000 centrifuges. The line was, “Iran will buckle under pressure.” But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride. They talk about their nuclear program as if they had gone to the moon. And they also understood—unfortunately, not wrongly—that if you have the know-how, you’re still kosher within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet you are sending a message: I can do this; I have bought myself an insurance policy, and you don’t want to mess with me.

Q: Tell me a little more about the Iranians’ bargaining style.


A:
The Iranians have always been extremely well briefed on the details. They know what they want. They are excellent on the strategic goals, excellent on waiting for the right price. I don’t want to make them sound like superhumans; you do see a lot of infighting among them. And part of it is about who is going to get credit for finally breaking out of this 30 years of fighting and confrontation with the United States. Everybody is positioning himself to be the national hero who would finally put Iran back onto the world map as part of the mainstream. They are not like the stereotyped fanatics bent on destroying everybody around them. They are not.

I suspect that, as in other countries one could name, “everyone” is not trying to put Iran back in the mainstream, but that is not a point worth debating. The point is that many Iranian officials have this attitude, so perhaps we should encourage it. To say, “I promise to stop hitting you if you give me what I want,” is not an effective negotiating stance unless, perhaps, you have total control over your victim. If Washington wants to make progress, its message should be, “What would you like in return for giving us what we want?”

Ahmadinejad is of course absolutely correct in saying that this should be negotiated within the IAEA and after Iran’s election. Washington should have had the sense to insist on both those points itself.

That said, let’s imagine how Washington might be able to approach Iran. “We deeply appreciate the statement of your leader that nuclear arms are immoral. We also agree that all signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty have the right to pursue nuclear knowledge and nuclear power. We nevertheless have certain concerns that we would like to put to rest. Perhaps you may have some concerns about U.S. intentions as well. Could you please describe to us both how you might alleviate our concerns about your nuclear intentions and how we might alleviate any concerns you may have about our intentions?”

In case the Iranians toss the ball back in the laps of the U.S. negotiators, Washington might, for starters, offer to set up a bilateral commission to discuss the issue of Israel.

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