The Upcoming Geneva P5+1 Round: An Opportunity to Explore

Iran and the United States are each saying that the other side should come up with a new proposal when the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program resume in Geneva on October 15-16.  But the upcoming talks, the first at the sub-cabinet level since a meeting in Almaty in April and the first since the June election of President Rouhani, will be more productive if they produce an informal exploration of what is possible rather than the introduction of detailed formal proposals.

Last Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Fareed Zakaria that “the previous offer by the P5+1 is history and they should come to the negotiating table with a new approach.”

The next day, Secretary of State John Kerry countered that “what we need are a set of proposals from Iran that will fully disclose how they will show the world that their program is peaceful.”

The P5+1 will not make a new proposal.  Their package of confidence-building measures, introduced at the first Almaty meeting in February, will remain on the table.  They will instead wait to hear what the new leadership in Iran has to offer.

Much more likely is that the Iranian side will put something new on the table.  Zarif has signaled as much in his public comments as well as in his private remarks to the P5+1 Foreign Ministers and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton when they met in New York on September 26.  The Iranian negotiators seem to be in a hurry to show skeptics in Tehran that their more moderate approach to the negotiations can yield concrete results, especially an easing of sanctions that are having a devastating effect on the Iranian economy.  They have spoken of reaching a deal in as little as three to six months.

But despite their desire to jump-start the talks, the Iranians – who will reportedly be led by Zarif even though the P5+1 will be represented at the level of Political Directors, including U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman – are unlikely to introduce a detailed proposal.  Instead, they are likely to stress their two key goals (termination of sanctions and recognition of what they call their “right to enrich” uranium), indicate they are ready to accept greater transparency in monitoring their nuclear program, propose a timeframe for concluding a deal, and perhaps suggest a conceptual framework for reaching agreement. 

An Iranian-suggested framework might well involve both a confidence-building package of initial steps, to be implemented right away, as well as agreement on the key elements of a comprehensive deal, including the end state of the process.  While the confidence-building measures (CBMs) were in place, the comprehensive deal would be negotiated in detail.

If the Iranians were to outline such a framework in Geneva, even in general terms, it could indicate a convergence in the approaches of the two sides.  The P5+1 have long favored an initial phase CBM that would put a brake on Iran’s nuclear program and buy time and space for working out a long-term solution.  It has become increasingly apparent to them that Iran would resist constraining its program with an initial CBM in the absence of an understanding of where the process is headed.  Hence, the need for agreement on the key elements of a long-term deal to accompany an initial CBM.

The P5+1 proposed an initial CBM at the first Almaty meeting in February.  It focused on stopping the production and stockpiling of near-20% enriched uranium and addressing concerns about the underground Fordow enrichment facility.  Zarif was right when he said that the February proposal “is history.”  Given recent advances in Iran’s nuclear program – especially the introduction of the more advanced IR2m centrifuges, progress at the Arak heavy-water reactor, and installation of additional P1 centrifuges – the P5+1’s Almaty CBM proposal needs to be updated and expanded to serve the objective of halting advances in the Iranian nuclear program while a long-term agreement is being negotiated.

The P5+1 countries know that, if their CBM proposal is broadened, they will have to offer more in terms of incentives to Iran, especially increased sanctions relief.  But they will not want to go very far in easing sanctions in order to get a CBM agreement, recognizing that the most impactful sanctions, especially on finances and oil, will later be needed as leverage for achieving an acceptable final deal.  The Iranians, on the other hand, will want early sanctions relief to be as far-reaching as possible.

In discussing the elements of a long-term agreement, the key issue will be enrichment.  Iran has made clear that it will insist on retaining a domestic enrichment program.  The United States, in particular, has not conceded that.  In her recent testimony, Undersecretary Sherman was only prepared to go as far as reaffirming that, if the Iranians meet international concerns about the nature of their nuclear program, the U.S. would agree that Iran could have a civil nuclear program, leaving unclear whether that civil program could include enrichment.

What is clear is that the P5+1 countries, and especially the United States, would be unwilling to accept an enrichment program in Iran that is not rigorously constrained and monitored.  If Iran wants P5+1 acceptance of its enrichment program, it will have to accept limits on enrichment capacity (numbers, types, and locations of centrifuges), limits on enriched uranium stocks (amounts, enrichment levels, chemical forms, and locations), and extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (including the Additional Protocol and real-time surveillance of key installations).  These measures would be essential in addressing P5+1 concerns about “breakout” – the ability of Iran suddenly to abandon enrichment constraints, evict IAEA inspectors, and move rapidly to producing enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more nuclear weapons.

The Geneva round is unlikely to get into such measures, certainly not in detail.  But a key test of Iranian seriousness in achieving agreement is whether they are prepared to accept such measures.  Geneva may provide some clues in this regard.

It’s a good thing that neither side in the upcoming Geneva round is likely to put a detailed proposal on the table.  That would only introduce an additional element of rigidity into the process.  Once a government, and especially a coalition of governments like the P5+1, has arrived at a proposal through painstaking consensus-building, it may be difficult to make adjustments in a short period of time.

Instead of introducing detailed new positions in Geneva, it would be more productive for the two sides to engage in informal, exploratory discussions of what they want and what they are prepared to offer.   An exchange of this sort could help give governments the information they need to develop more formal proposals.

An impediment to such constructive exploration is the format of the P5+1/Iran talks, at least the way they have been conducted so far.  As a participant in the P5+1 process from 2009 until May 2013, I am painfully aware that this is not a format conducive to productive, informal give-and-take.  Rather it has mainly been used, with only a few exceptions, for set-piece presentations of positions.  And with Iran, the six P5+1 governments, and EU High Representative Ashton all needing to get their positions on the record, a lot of time is devoted to somewhat repetitive speech-making.

If the P5+1/Iran talks are to be productive, the format will need to change.  Speeches need to be minimized and informal exchanges need to be the principal vehicle of engagement.  With the current, more open Iranian leadership, this should be possible.

Especially important will be direct U.S.-Iranian interactions.  Only once in the pre-Rouhani period did the United States and Iran engage bilaterally.  That was on the margins of the P5+1/Iran meeting in Geneva in October 2009 when then-Undersecretary of State Bill Burns met with Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili.  The two agreed that Iran would ship out of its territory most of its then-existing stocks of enriched uranium in exchange for fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor.  However, within two weeks, domestic politics forced the Iranians to back out of the deal.

Ever since the Burns-Jalili encounter, the Iranians have refused to meet bilaterally with U.S. delegates at meetings with the P5+1.  However, after Kerry’s 30-minute private bilateral meeting with Zarif in New York last month and especially after the Obama-Rouhani phone call, a bilateral side-meeting between Sherman and Zarif is  a realistic possibility and would be a good opportunity to conduct the kind of informal exploration that will be necessary to move the process forward.

No one should expect concrete results from this initial P5+1 engagement with the new Iranian team in Geneva.  In particular, the Congress should not decide to impose new sanctions if tangible progress is not achieved at the meeting.  Further sanctions may well be required if the Iranians are not forthcoming.  But the October 15-16 meeting will not be a sufficient test of Iranian flexibility.  A bit more time and engagement will be required.

Still, even if Geneva doesn’t produce tangible results, it is important for the Iranian negotiating team to demonstrate convincingly that all the encouraging words coming from Iran in recent weeks are not just rhetoric and clever public diplomacy but instead reflect a new willingness in Tehran to reach a compromise solution that alleviates international concerns about the nature of its nuclear program.