Interview with Peter Jenkins | Iran-West Negotiations: Getting to Yes

In this interview, David J. Franco and Peter Jenkins discuss on the current state of negotiations between the West and Iran ahead of the April 14 meeting in Istanbul between the P-5, Germany, the EU and Iran.

By David J. Franco, 13th April, 2012

Peter Jenkins was the UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 2001 and 2006. Prior to that, he held diplomatic posts in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brazil and Geneva. At present, he leads ADRg Ambassadors in the development of its relations with the UN and other important international organisations including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). For some time he has advocated a more cooperative approach towards Iran in relation to the West’s standoff over the former’s nuclear programme and ambitions. In this interview, David J. Franco asks questions to Peter Jenkins on the current state of negotiations ahead of the 14 April meeting in Istanbul between the P-5, Germany, the EU, and Iran. Will Iran and the West ever get to yes? Let us hope that they do, for the contrary may have devastating consequences for the region and the rest of the world.

Franco: Good morning Mr Jenkins and welcome to a conversation with InPEC. Tomorrow the five permanent members of the Security Council, Germany, the EU and Iran will meet yet again in Istanbul to further discuss Iran’s nuclear programme. In a recent article you have stated that it is not irrational to think that the meeting could result in the parties finding some way to launch a new process which could ultimately lead to a solution. Does this mean that you are positive about the meeting?

Jenkins: Yes, I can see reasons to be modestly optimistic. The recent parliamentary elections in Iran have left Ayatollah Khamenei stronger than at any point since 1989; his position looks to me comparable to that of Ayatollah Khomeini in August 1980 when he authorised negotiations to free the US embassy hostages. President Obama is also looking strong domestically: none of his Republic rivals has shone, and polls suggest that the American public is opposed, as he seems to be, to the attack on Iran for which Israel and its neoconservative allies have been pressing. It’s a truism of diplomacy that compromise is easier for strong leaders than for weak ones.

Add to that a report in the Washington Post on Sunday that the White House is confident Iran is not making nuclear weapons and has not decided to do so. Nine years ago the West set out to deny Iran a uranium enrichment capability because it feared Iran was determined to have nuclear weapons. If now that fear has all but gone, the West can accept an enrichment programme that is perhaps better seen as a prestige project, a symbol of Iran’s progress towards a position in the world befitting one of the great Asian civilisations. Accepting an Iranian enrichment programme can unlock a solution to this quarrel.

Finally, straws in the wind suggest that both sides have learnt lessons from past failures. They are not going to set pre-conditions for talking to one another or to fire off extravagant demands that the other is bound to reject. Instead they are going to focus on how talks might evolve into a proper negotiation – a sustained process for which, no doubt, both sides will need stamina and patience.

Franco: And yet despite your initial optimism you have also warned of the risks of any new process resulting in ‘distrust, misunderstanding and political in-fighting in both Tehran and Washington’…

Jenkins: well, yes. This is another of the lessons that can be drawn from the past.  Americans and Europeans find the Islamic Republic of Iran hard to fathom, and even harder to trust. There are lots of reasons for this. Iran is a secretive state, as was the USSR during the Cold War; in the absence of insights into discussions and decision-making in the innermost circles of government, outsiders are tempted to assume the worst.

Although Iran’s leaders crave respect, they do not always behave respectably: taking diplomats hostage, helping Hezbollah to blow up US Marine barracks, failing to declare to the IAEA the possession and use of nuclear material, calling for another state to be eliminated from the map – these are not moves likely to win trust. Meanwhile, from an Iranian perspective, financing a coup to overthrow an elected government, failing to condemn an aggressor, condoning that aggressor’s use of chemical weapons, shooting down a civilian air-liner, and rewarding Iran for its sympathy post-9/11 and its support against the Taliban by branding it as “evil” – well, these sorts of things raise doubts about whether the US can be trusted.

I’m embarrassed to say that some diplomats have contributed to this misunderstanding and distrust. In 1979 a US diplomat serving in Tehran sent a cable in which he set out reasons to consider Iranians the most fiendishly devious negotiators on earth. A similar, more recent document may emerge one day from the archives of the Foreign Office.

As for in-fighting – a promising opening achieved by the EU representative in 2007 evaporated as a result of rivalry between Iran’s chief negotiator and President Ahmedinejad; and in 2009 it was President Ahmedinejad’s turn to be thwarted by some of his rivals. Meanwhile at the Western end, US administrations are notorious for the pitched battles that take place between different departments and agencies; and on the Iranian issue President Sarkozy has placed himself well to the right of President Obama – till now at least.

Franco: The key to a successful negotiation is not to get the parties to agree on their respective positions but to try and reconcile their long term interests. You have mentioned elsewhere that a potential agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme should aim to handle Iran’s nuclear ambitions in accordance with the treaty to which Iran is a founder-party, the NPT. What do you mean by this and would such a potential agreement be in the long term interest of the parties concerned?

Jenkins: Yes for any negotiation to produce positive results it’s essential that the parties move from opening positions (often diametrically opposed!) to frank discussions that enable each to understand the other’s real interests. That understanding usually makes it possible to identify common interests. That opens the way to negotiating agreements which give expression to those common interests.

In this case the West has only occasionally got beyond an unrealistic opening position: Iran must suspend all work on enrichment. Now the West seems disposed to recognise that its real interest is to obtain from Iran the best possible guarantees that none of the nuclear material in its possession will be diverted to military use. It happens to be in Iran’s interest to give these guarantees if it wants to be left unmolested to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme – if it wants to get the West off its back.

This exchange – the acceptance of activities involving the peaceful use of nuclear technology in return for the placing of all material under IAEA safeguards and a commitment to refrain from manufacturing nuclear weapons – is at the heart of the NPT. It’s a bargain that is in operation all over the world and has saved mankind from a terrifying proliferation of nuclear weapons. The West should have accepted it when Iran offered it in 2005. But at that stage we still feared that Iran was intent on possessing nuclear weapons and therefore would not keep its end of the bargain. A classic instance of the destructive power of distrust!

Franco: In negotiations it is also crucial to understand your negotiating counterpart yet the West does not seem to understand Iran. This statement presumes that the West wants to understand Iran, but does it and, if so, what can it do in order to better understand Iran? Has coercive diplomacy helped better understand it in any way?

Jenkins: the key to understanding another nation, it seems to me, is to learn about that nation’s history, the historic experiences that have helped to form that nation’s sense of self, sense of identity.  If you understand how your negotiating partner sees himself and how he sees his position in relation to other members of his community, you stand a better chance of divining his intentions and the calculations of interest that determine his decisions.

An understanding of values is also important. Some values are universal, others vary from culture to culture. The values of a Shi’a Muslim are not the same as the values of a Western materialist.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that none of those who advise Western leaders have this kind of understanding where Iran is concerned. Some certainly do. But I suspect they have been out-numbered by officials who have lacked the time or inclination to acquire this understanding, and that the voices of Iran experts may sometimes have been drowned out by the voices of non-proliferation or “global security” experts (not to mention “political advisers”).

Will this cease to be the case from now on? I doubt it. Has the pursuit of coercive policies improved understanding? Possibly if it’s taught some of the above that coercion brings out a defiant streak in Iranians, and that they are not in to buckling under pressure.

Franco: Some of Iran’s neighbours and regional competitors seem to be playing an important role in influencing and preventing the West from taking a more cooperative approach towards Iran. In this regard, you have recently stated that the BRICS could play a bigger role in helping counter such influence and pave the road towards a potential solution. Do you see direct negotiations as the only way forward or do you think some form of direct/indirect mediation or third party facilitation could possibly work?

Jenkins: I’m particularly struck by the influence Israel has had on US policy, and thence on European policy. It’s documented that in 1992 Israel’s Labour party leaders, worried that in a post-Cold War Middle East Israel’s strategic value to the US would decline, decided to play up the threat posed to US interests by Iran. The Republican administration of George Bush Sr. reacted sceptically to this threat allegation, but Bill Clinton’s advisers, and US Congressmen eager to be on the right side of AIPAC, and US neoconservative think-tanks (one of my favourite oxymorons) were happy to buy into it. Ever since Israel has rarely lost an opportunity to put the worst possible interpretation on Iranian actions and has done a brisk trade in flogging these misrepresentations to Western intelligence agencies and foreign ministries.

So I see Israel as having an interest in preventing the West from reaching agreement with Iran on an NPT-based deal. (Incidentally Israel has never joined the NPT and I once heard an Israeli diplomat encourage Arab diplomats to withdraw from the NPT if Iran failed to close down its enrichment programme.  Scandalous!)  Saudi-Arabia is the other neighbour of Iran that worries me. Although, unlike Israel, they have refrained from poisoning the wells of Western opinion, they have threatened to develop a nuclear weapons capability, despite their NPT commitments, if Iran is left in possession of enrichment plants.

So what I urged in a recent article is that the BRICS set themselves the task of counterpointing tunes composed by the West’s Middle East “allies” (“liability” would be a more accurate description of Israel since 1967) in order to reduce the risk that the West’s quarrel with Iran will degenerate into the kind of open conflict for which Israel’s leaders have been pressing.

As for mediation: it’s too soon to say. As a trained mediator I believe in mediation. But it’s only effective when both parties are committed to making best efforts to narrowing differences but see a need for help.

Franco: Finally, assuming that tomorrow’s meeting (or a further meeting in the future) results in the formal launch of a new negotiating process, how do you think the Conference on a Middle East Free Zone of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which is due to take place in December 2012, will impact on such a potential negotiating process?

Jenkins: in theory it could have a very positive impact. Agreement to create a WMD zone covering Iran, Saudi-Arabia and Israel would give a splendid boost to confidence. Such zones elsewhere – covering South America, Africa, Central Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific – have greatly contributed to reducing fears of nuclear proliferation.

In practice the conference is unlikely to yield anything of real value. The Israelis – them again – are being dragged kicking and screaming towards it by their US mentors and are showing no signs of being ready to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, which is a sine qua non for the creation of a zone.

Franco: Thank you Mr Jenkins for taking the time to answer our questions.


Other posts on Iran:

 – Will Iran be accorded its rightful place in the world?, by Peter Jenkins

Iran, Israel and the US: Who’s Threatening Who?, Interview with Shirin Shafaie, by David J. Franco


2 thoughts on “Interview with Peter Jenkins | Iran-West Negotiations: Getting to Yes

  1. Pingback: Time to reframe the debate on the Iranian nuclear programme | openDemocracy

  2. Pingback: Time to reframe the debate on the Iranian nuclear programme « InPEC

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