Location Matters in Nuclear Talks with Iran

As the global powers agree to resume nuclear talks with Iran, there should be a very significant change in the coming diplomacy with Iran over its controversial nuclear program. I would like to suggest that diplomatic talks with Iran over this very critical issue, for both sides of the table, should be held in Iran, if we want to stay hopeful for future success in these talks.

On Jan. 19, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, during his visit to Turkey, suggested starting a new round of diplomatic talks to be held in Turkey. Ten days later, on Jan. 29, a group of IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors visited Iran in order to discuss some important issues with Iranians; they called their meeting with Iranian officials fruitful.

In contrast to Salehi’s suggestion, I believe that global powers, similar to the IAEA inspectors, should go to Iran to discuss its nuclear ambitions, not to Turkey or any third country.

There have been several rounds of nuclear talks between Iran and the West hosted in different countries, including European countries, Turkey and Iran; only two of these meetings, however, have been somewhat rewarding. Both were held in Tehran, one in 2003 that led to the Tehran Declaration, and the other one in 2010, its outcome being the Tehran Nuclear Declaration. Based on these experiences, I suggest that nuclear negotiations with Iran should be pursued in Iran itself; also, each round should last for a longer period of time. The inconvenience this would involve is warranted: As the heaviest possible sanctions have been aimed at Iran, a failure in coming diplomacy with Iran will lead toward war.

My suggestion is based on the power structure in Iran: Because there is not a single source of power in charge of the nuclear negotiations with the 5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) it makes negotiating with Iran very difficult.

The power structure in the Islamic Republic is a complex one and has made it difficult for important decisions in foreign policy to be reached. Officially, it is the government that is in charge of the country’s foreign policy and, in this case, nuclear negotiations. Therefore, the foreign minister and his assistants are allowed to start negotiation with the 5+1 over this critical issue, but they are not able to lead the discussion to any meaningful diplomatic results, as we have witnessed in the unsuccessful diplomacy of the last six years. This is due to fact that the Iranian negotiation team does not enjoy any power. When new questions are put on the table for the team, it cannot finish the diplomatic talks it has started as it does not possess the necessary authority to be able to make important decisions in response to the newly proposed questions; therefore, the team ends the discussion and postpones diplomatic talks for a later round.

Specifically, there are two main sources of power in the decision-making regarding Iran’s nuclear program; one is the institution of the Supreme Leader and the other is a government led by the president. Even though the government headed by the president is known internationally as the negotiator, it is not able to make any important decision without consulting the Supreme Leader and institutions surrounding him. Whenever there is a new question, the negotiation team has to discuss it inside the government, with the Supreme Leader, and also with the pressure groups that are supported by the Supreme Leader. To reach an agreement among all these power groups is a very time-consuming process.

The negotiation team needs to leave the discussions to go back to Iran so that they can discuss the newly proposed questions with various sources of power in the decision-making process in Iran. Interestingly, when they start their new round, they do not start from where they left off, but from the beginning.

I do believe that having each round of negotiations be both longer – and located in Iran – will allow Iranian negotiators to gain quick access to various individuals who wield influence in Iranian foreign policy; it would help them to respond meaningfully at the end of each diplomatic talk. It is important to receive a response because it is possible to understand the intention of the Iranian government behind the nuclear negotiations more clearly, and understand whether they intend to reach an agreement or just waste time. The 5+1 should go to Tehran if they are serious about reaching a diplomatic solution to this very long-standing controversy over the Iranian nuclear program.