Put Everything on the Table

[caption id="attachment_55246183" align="alignnone" width="620"]Iran's and world powers' delegations sit prior the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks on October 15, 2013 at the United Nations offices in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images) Iran's and world powers' delegations sit prior the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks on October 15, 2013 at the United Nations offices in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)[/caption]The recent buzz around the renewal of nuclear talks with Iran has raised the prospect of a potential breakthrough on its long-disputed nuclear program. Both Washington and Tehran have indicated that they are willing to make substantive concessions that could potentially lead to an easing of the sanctions crushing Iran’s economy and a new chapter in Iran’s relations with the United States and Europe. However, while these negotiations represent a qualitative improvement over the bleak situation of just a year ago, without addressing wider tensions in US-Iranian relations—as well as broadening the scope of these negotiations to include a representative from the Gulf’s Arab states—these negotiations will fail to address the security concerns of Iran’s neighbors and Iran’s role in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

What is needed is a wider dialogue between Iran and its neighbors and the United States, Russia, and Europe on key strategic issues: the security of the Gulf, Iran’s role in the Levant and Iraq, and Iran’s relations with the United States. The status of Iran’s nuclear program should be one track of these wider negotiations, not the only track as it is at the moment. A normalization of relations with Iran should not be conditional purely on an agreement on its nuclear program, but on Tehran’s willingness to offer wider security guarantees not only to the United States and Russia, but also to its neighbors. Without addressing the strategic security concerns of Iran’s neighbors in conjunction with these negotiations, any concessions the United States, Russia, China, and Europe could offer potentially could come at the expense of the security of important allies of the United States. The need, then, for a representative of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council at these talks is essential.

The United States, for its own interests, should also seek negotiations that address Iran’s relations with the Levant, in particular the case of Syria’s civil war and its relations with Hezbollah. Without linking Iran’s role in the Levant to these talks, concessions offered by the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program—such as easing sanctions or making it easier for Iran to access new technology—could strengthen Iran’s ability to re-enforce the Assad regime or strengthen its position in the Gulf. The US should not place itself in a position where its wider strategic interests in the region are endangered by strategic concessions on one specific issue.

Additionally, in practical terms, negotiating on only one single issue instead of pursuing a holistic approach has its own problems. In the case of North Korea, Pyongyang has used the format of the six party talks to its advantage. Instead of addressing North Korea’s wider role in northeast Asia and its tensions with the United States, the six party talks have led to concessions on its nuclear program, but not to any substantive change in North Korea’s behavior in relation to its neighbors and the United States. As a result, whenever tensions emerged with their neighbors or the United States, North Korea used it as an opportunity to renege on agreements struck on its nuclear program. There is a risk that Tehran could play a similar game, using concessions on its nuclear program as a diplomatic wild card whenever conflict emerges between Iran, its neighbors, and the United States on other issues.

By focusing these talks exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program, these negotiations could create a situation where progress on the wider issues are derailed if the current talks stall. If these talks were to include other issues, differences on one issue wouldn’t preclude cooperation on others, or the opportunity to develop trust between all parties. Cooperation in one area could then help move the negotiations beyond the differences on another issue. Finally, the question of compliance is also one that should be considered. As other cases of conflict resolution have shown, broader negotiations offer broader incentives to continue to cooperate and, as a result, a higher chance that Tehran will follow through with its commitments in any agreements reached in the future.

While the United States should certainly seize this opportunity to seek guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program remains a peaceful one, the negotiations themselves require broader representation and a broader focus to be effective. Pursuing a piecemeal approach that only addresses one issue of contention at the expense of other issues is not an effective strategy, and one that could potentially threaten the US and its allies’ interests in the region.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla Magazine.