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Former Diplomats Call for Bilateral U.S.-Iran Talks to Resolve Nuclear Dispute

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- As world powers on Tuesday begin another meeting with Iran aimed at addressing concerns about the military implications of its nuclear program, retired diplomats on Monday asserted that the present multilateral negotiating format is not working and the best hope for a resolution lies in bilateral talks between Tehran and Washington.

The so-called P-5+1 negotiations have dominated international nuclear outreach to Iran for years. The latest round of talks involving senior envoys from Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States is taking place over two days in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Despite a string of such meetings as well as multiple U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions targeting an ostensibly civilian atomic energy program, Iran has continued to enlarge its uranium enrichment program. The United States and other Western nations worry the program is geared toward producing a nuclear-weapon capability. Tehran insists it has no plans to build a warhead.

The lack of progress in arresting Iran’s progress toward a breakout capability -- defined as possession of all the technical and material means necessary to produce a nuclear warhead -- has caused former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and others to conclude the P-5+1 format cannot be counted on to produce a breakthrough in negotiations.

“The P-5+1 is by definition a lowest common denominator operation,” Pickering said on Monday at a forum organized by the Arms Control Association. “Instincts among the P-5+1 against adventurism are in some ways matched inside the U.S. government. There is a mutual reinforcement of excessive timidity which is not a helpful fact of life when you are dealing with a set of negotiations that have a finite life.”

Former Iranian atomic envoy Hossein Mousavian predicted the Almaty talks would fail to achieve a significant breakthrough. Calling the negotiating framework “dysfunctional,” the current Princeton University scholar suggested the format had outlived its usefulness.

Changing the focus of diplomatic energy to holding two-way talks between Tehran and Washington offers the “best way and the shortest way” to reaching a real resolution, Mousavian said at the forum.

Iran is demanding that multinational and unilateral sanctions targeting its nuclear, banking and oil sectors be lifted and that its right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty be upheld. The world powers meanwhile want to see Tehran cap enrichment to no more than 5 percent, far below weapon-grade levels; give up its stocks of higher-enriched uranium; and accept intrusive international monitoring of its nuclear program.

Iran on Tuesday is to be offered a deal by the P-5+1 parties that would relax certain sanctions measures targeting it in return for accepting some limitations on its  nuclear work, according to Reuters, which cited an interview with an anonymous U.S. government source.

With the exception of France and the United States, the members of the P-5+1 negotiating framework are implicitly ready to accept a compromise solution that acknowledges Iran's right to uranium enrichment while giving the international community the assurances it demands that there is no military component to Tehran's nuclear program, according to Mousavian. "The main problem again is here in Washington," the ex-Iranian diplomat said. "Washington is not ready to move on substantive sanctions at all."

As the United States is also the key driver of international sanctions against Iran, it makes sense for the two parties to have one-on-one talks, former envoys said on Monday.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Limbert, one of the 52 U.S. Embassy personnel taken hostage in Iran in 1979, said the existing negotiating framework “may not be an ideal format” for resolving the nuclear impasse.

Washington “has sought one-on-one bilaterals on the sidelines of these [P-5+1] meetings. Except for the meeting in Geneva in October of 2009, there haven’t been any. The Iranians have actually run away from them,” Limbert said at a press conference held by the National Iranian American Council and other groups pushing for diplomacy to play a greater role in U.S. efforts to resolve the Iran nuclear problem.

Mousavian said successful bilateral talks cannot take place until the United States alters the language it uses with regards to Iran. “As long as the U.S. is talking to Iran with the language of threat and humiliation, the Iranians will not come to any talks.”

The Obama administration has regularly said all options, including military intervention, remain on the table for ensuring Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.

The absence of any diplomatic relationship fuels the decades-long hostility between Tehran and Washington, making it difficult to gain insight and understanding of the other side’s thinking, issue experts said on Monday.

“It’s difficult because we’re not there [in Iran]. That’s one of the problems. We should have a relationship of some kind. We have zilch,” said former chargé d'affaires to Iran Bruce Laingen, who was a hostage along with Limbert for 444 days.

“At some point … Iranian officials and American officials have to talk to each other, maybe quietly, maybe privately, maybe out of the public eye to find things that they can say ‘yes’ too,” Limbert said.

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