Talking to Tehran: Why the Nuclear Issue Is the Only Topic on the Agenda

The mid-point of the six-month negotiating period outlined in the interim Iran nuclear deal has passed, and in Vienna this week, representatives from Iran and six world powers are trying to hammer out a comprehensive accord. As expectations of — and opposition to — a possible end to the nuclear standoff rise, so have aspirations among some observers of broadening the scope of the dialogue.

This sense of ambition is hardly surprising. Washington has long maintained a laundry list of concerns about Iranian policies, objections that for the most part have not abated since the election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani and the beginnings of a breakthrough on the nuclear issue.

Many Western policy-makers and analysts fear that Tehran is seeking a permissive nuclear agreement as a cover for intensifying its destabilizing activities around the region. Similarly, some human rights activists worry that the West will cede any interest in advancing civil liberties in Iran as a fair price for a nuclear accommodation. And ultimately, the preliminary progress on the nuclear front offers powerful evidence that pressure and time can have a moderating influence on the revolutionary state’s most dangerous policies.

Many in Washington are all too familiar with the course of events that generated today’s single-track diplomacy with Iran, but the seeming success on the nuclear issue has raised questions about whether and when talks between Washington and Tehran will expand tackle issues beyond the nuclear program. Issues of both process and principles make this unlikely in the near-term.

The nuclear talks are taking place under the aegis of a multilateral forum devised specifically, and solely, for that purpose.

Somewhat unusually in the history of international crises, the Iranian nuclear standoff actually spawned unique institutions, most notably the P5+1 (or, as the Europeans say, the EU3+3.) This is a partnership between Britain, France and Germany — the three states that originally rose to the challenge of seeking a negotiated resolution to concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities after their 2002 disclosure — and the other three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, namely Russia, China and the United States. Thanks to the good offices of then-High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, the European Union assumed a leadership role in the early stages, and Solana’s successor Baroness Catherine Ashton has chaired the recent talks on behalf of the P5+1.

The P5+1 came into existence eight years ago, with the Bush Administration’s reluctant decision to join the Europeans in their diplomatic foray to address revelations about Iran’s previously undisclosed nuclear infrastructure. Its composition reflected Washington’s desire to marry the initial investment of the EU3 with the weight of the UNSC, to underscore to Tehran the potential price for declining to deal.

From the start, the mandate of the P5+1 was clearly demarcated — both for its constituents as well as for Tehran — as a channel for negotiations solely on the nuclear issue. And U.S. officials consistently sought to reinforce that singularity, particularly in the episodic negotiating sessions that took place prior to Rouhani’s election, when Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili appeared determined to discuss almost any issue except for the nuclear issue.

Over the course of the past eight years, through protracted and intense intra-coalition bargaining over strategy and tools, the P5+1 has gradually attained a real coherence. Clearly, the preferences of the parties still differ, and there have been plenty of occasions for friction. However, the Obama administration has managed to sustain a genuine sense of common purpose even as Washington has pushed its allies (and occasionally, pushed back against them) in pursuit of leverage that would bring Tehran to the table.

However, any success in devising a resolution to the nuclear deal is unlikely to

The long (and still unfinished) road to a nuclear deal reinforces the aversion among all of the players to any hint of mission creep, as do the vast divergences in their positions on the other issues at stake with Tehran. 

The basic formula behind the nuclear negotiating strategy cannot be readily replicated.

For all the obstacles experienced en route to the current atmosphere of cooperation, the framework for the nuclear neogtiations is a rather robust one. First, it is underpinned by the efforts of well-established international institutions, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council. Second, it benefits from a compelling objective that is shared broadly within the international community — fundamental interest in ensuring that Tehran does not achieve nuclear weapons capability.

No such shared interests

It’s inevitable that the nuclear issue takes precedence; it is where the confluence of interests between the two sides appears to lie, and there is an established mechanism, with strong international participation and support, to facilitate progress there. The opportunity is there, and we can’t fail to take advantage of it simply because it only partially addresses our concerns about Iran. .

there is an even more toxic baggage associated with Washington’s efforts on human rights and democratization within Iran that threatens to taint those we might support and strengthen the position of paranoid hard-liners.

Post-script: Can the P5+1 offer a model for advancing other interests with Iran?

Still, whatever progress has been made on the nuclear front should inspire more creative thinking about how to transfer

The nuclear negotiations may offer a model worthy of consideration.

None of the parties would claim that the P5+1 is an ideal partnership, and over the course of the crisis, there have been episodic suggestions of re-engineering the unwieldly six-part coalition. The coalition has survived to see its existence validated by newfound Iranian receptivity to an agreement, and thus far has managed to ride out the bilateral frictions that have buffeted its membership on issues such as Ukraine.

The human rights issue is much, much more difficult for Washington to make progress on: there is nowhere near the same level of multilateral cooperation, and there are few if any effective policy tools beyond the bully pulpit and the occasional action at the United Nations. Still, the Obama administration, together with the Europeans, has done a reasonable job so far of trying to ensure that the other issues don’t get lost in the nuclear shuffle. There is a tendency to lock down all other aspects of Iran policy when there is any prospect of progress on the nuclear front.

So it’s a good sign that US officials continue to talk about the detention of Moussavi and Karroubi, even if only episodically. And Catherine Ashton deserves real credit for using her visit to Tehran to keep the EU’s interest in seeing political liberalization in the limelight, through her meeting with activists. And if those types of actions draw backlash within Iran, that’s a perfectly acceptable consequence.

At some point, there should be some consideration of how to devise a mechanism for dealing with Iran more systematically — and with greater multilateral buy-in and participation — on the issues beyond the nuclear issue. I’m not optimistic that this will be easy — if we cannot find viable ways to encourage our longstanding regional allies from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to enhance political and social rights and freedoms, then it seems much less likely that we will gain traction quickly with a government whose historical relationship with the West and worldview is as recalcitrant as Iran’s. But there is a valuable lesson in the long lead-up to the current succ