Between the collapse of the U.S. talks in October 2009 and Brazil and Turkey’s successful mediation in May 2010, Brazil and Turkey spent more time talking to the Iranians than did the entire P5+1 negotiating group. Brazil’s and Turkey’s foreign ministers shuttled in and out of Iran for months before the formal negotiations, building trust and political space for their mediation.
Respect and tone matter
After three decades of mutual demonization, the United States and Iran have been trying to coerce one another into submission rather than negotiating toward compromise. When addressing each other, Washington and Tehran tend to use the vocabulary of conflict and war. The Bush administration’s inclusion of Iran in an “axis of evil”effectively terminated a very useful collaboration between the United States and Iran against the Taliban in 2002. Respect for the other side is rarely expressed, out of fear that it would be interpreted as weakness — especially in an election year.
Turkey and Brazil adopted a different approach. “Iran listens because we respect them,” a senior Turkish diplomat involved in the 2010 talks told me. “When you put intimidation and coercion ahead of respect, it falls apart.”
Don’t limit the agenda
Reducing 30 years of wide-ranging U.S.-Iran tensions to negotiations focused on one variable — the development of nuclear weapons — is not a formula for success. A larger agenda that includes other issues, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, regional security, and human rights, would provide greater maneuverability. We could overcome a stalemate in one track through headway in another.
For example, Brazil raised the issue of human rights, a sensitive topic for Tehran. Defense Minister Celso Amorim, who was Brazil’s foreign minister during the negotiations, told me how, behind the scenes, he used his many trips to Iran to secure the release of a French student accused of espionage. For future talks to be successful, the agenda should be expanded — and even sensitive issues such as human rights should be included. Not only would this help strengthen relations with the Iranian people, it would also enable the United States to address the plight of Americans imprisoned in Iran.
Put nuclear inspections and verification at the center
Negotiating whether Iran can enrich uranium has been a losing proposition from the outset. There is a greater chance for success if the focus is shifted toward how enrichment can be inspected, verified, limited and controlled. This would require a clear acceptance of enrichment in Iran — a step the West has refused. In Amorim’s assessment, his success in getting Iran to agree to the fuel swap was largely because the deal tacitly accepted enrichment on Iranian soil.