Home OpinionComment Lessons of hindsight

Lessons of hindsight

Learning from failed Iran negotiations can improve chance of agreement

by Gareth Smyth

The diplomatic pond rippled when Hossein Mousavian, the former Iranian nuclear negotiator, visited London’s Chatham House in February. Home of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House famously has rules whereby proceedings are not reported, although some were streamed on the Internet to members.

Suffice to say that Mousavian, now a research scholar at Princeton, thinks opportunities were lost in nuclear talks between Iran and three European states from 2003 to 2005. I recently heard the same from Sir Richard Dalton, associate fellow at Chatham House and British ambassador to Tehran from November 2002 to March 2006.

The 2003-05 talks took Tehran closer to a substantial diplomatic agreement with Western powers than at any time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. During the talks, Iran suspended uranium enrichment and signed up for intrusive United Nations inspections. However, former diplomats chatting does little. What is moving the ripples is that both Mousavian and Dalton sense a return to a serious search for an agreement under which Iran would limit its program beyond its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 

They are encouraged, in other words, by the current series of talks: February’s meeting of Iran and world powers (the so-called ‘P5+1’, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and a conclave of senior officials in Istanbul late last month.

The P5+1 has asked Tehran to limit enrichment to 20 percent and offered to ease sanctions. Details are complex and there are differences from 2003-05: Iran has expanded its program and advanced its technology. Sanctions are more punitive, and the domestic situation in Iran is more charged. But at least some of those who in the 2003-05 talks looked into the whites of their counterparts’ eyes believe that there are lessons for today. Arguably, the crux is the same: Iran would limit its program beyond the NPT and below ‘break-out capacity’ to quickly weaponize; and would accept intrusive UN inspections. All in return for economic and other benefits, largely unlinked to the nuclear program.

Looking back, a possible deal in 2003 can seem a no-brainer in that it would have curbed the program far more than what would seem possible today. But we should remember that things then were far from easy. The ‘exposure’ of Iran’s program by the opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq in 2002 added to calls in the United States to ‘deal with’ Tehran. The following year’s collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the face of American might sparked a ‘real men go to Tehran’ slogan among neo-conservatives. 

Europe was wary of the Bush administration’s desire to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over the nuclear program as a possible step towards force, and this led foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany (dubbed the EU3) to Tehran in October 2003, when at the Saadabad palace, Iran agreed to suspend enrichment during negotiations and improve UN inspectors’ access. 

While suspension was partly to allay concern over the program and to split Europe from the US, Iranian negotiators, including Mousavian, thought a sustainable agreement was possible. Iran’s problem was that the EU3 maintained a formal condition that suspension should be extended, and that they only offered ill-defined political and trade incentives as a carrot.

Hence talks had run their course before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in June 2005, after which his messianic enthusiasm for the program made it harder for talks to progress and the US persuaded the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2006 to refer Iran to the Security Council, leading to UN sanctions and tougher sanctions from both the US and European Union.

Part of the 2003-05 talks were informal. Paul von Maltzahn, German ambassador from July 2003 to September 2006, told me recently of conversations between European ambassadors and Mousavian where ideas bounced around. That was consistent with word I received at the time in Tehran of proposals “discussed” in which Europe would accept some enrichment. But part of the failure of the talks was the US. When this changed, after Barack Obama came to power willing to ‘engage’ Iran, things were different in Tehran. Von Maltzahn told me that a big lesson of 2003-05 was that ultimately the nuclear program is a bilateral Iran-US matter.

In the end, all politics is local. Much whispering in the run up to Iran’s presidential election in June centers on matters of nuclear and what to do about Washington. If there is focus in the P5+1talks, it is partly because, 10 years after Saadabad, time is running out.


Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for nearly two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran

Support our fight for economic liberty &
the freedom of the entrepreneurial mind

Gareth Smyth

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

View all posts by

You may also like