Marc Lynch

An impromptu American-Iranian dialogue

An impromptu American-Iranian dialogue

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 on the Iranian nuclear program are set to begin tomorrow in Kazakhstan after some eight months. The expectations game is in full swing, with American officials tipping an offer of a "clear pathway" to sanctions relief (which won’t be easy) and Iran signaling a tough initial line. Few expect a breakthrough at the talks, but there is some hope that it might lay the foundation for more regular, ongoing negotiations on the core issues or even to direct U.S.-Iran talks. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Almaty. But at this weekend’s Camden Conference in Maine, I at least got a preview of what the opening rounds of a direct Iranian-American dialogue might look like. It wasn’t pretty. But it was a useful demonstration of the vast conceptual divide between the two sides which any negotiation will somehow need to bridge.

The preview came at the end of the first day of the conference. Shai Feldman of Brandeis University first presented a detailed, sophisticated account of Israeli strategic thinking about Iran (see here for a sample of his analysis on the Middle East Channel). He left the stage following his remarks, and was followed by Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and currently a Research Scholar at Princeton University who presented a standard Iranian narrative of unjustified international suspicion and illegitimate international pressure (his December Carnegie Council presentation and today’s FT column gives a sense of his talk).

But the anticipated Israeli-Iranian rhetorical standoff never materialized, because with Feldman off-stage the United States stepped forward instead in the person of conference moderator Nicholas Burns. (Take the symbolism of that as you will). Burns, a former under-secretary of state for political affairs and currently a professor at Harvard University, played a key role in American policy towards Iran at the State Department. When he sat down for the Q+A following Mousavian’s presentation, he couldn’t let certain parts of the Iranian narrative pass unremarked.  

What followed was a rare and revealing public interaction between two retired officials who had played key roles in the policies of their respective governments but rarely had the opportunity to interact officially. Burns called out Mousavian on the Iranian government’s support for terrorism, the broad international consensus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Mousavian challenged Burns on the impact of sanctions, the underlying assumptions of the focus on the Iranian nuclear program, and Iran’s legal right to peaceful nuclear energy and enrichment. (Oddly, the hostage crisis didn’t appear in his historical narrative.) Why so much mistrust of Iran, wondered Mousavian;  perhaps because the Iranian government has lied about its nuclear activities so often, countered Burns. If the Iranian government is so blameless, Burns suggested, why is it that the Security Council including Russia and China is united against it on these issues;  they aren’t, really, came the response. How could the U.S. justify the human toll of the sanctions on the Iranian people, asked an audience member; what other alternative is there to war if Iran will not deal with a unified international community, countered Burns (a sizable portion of the audience booed).

By the end, one frustrated member of the audience challenged both men on their radically divergent narratives:  How, she asked, can anyone hope to resolve this issue if there isn’t even a single set of agreed upon facts? That’s a familiar problem in any polarized and entrenched conflict, of course, and hardly new to bargaining theory or practice. But it’s still worth recalling and bringing to the forefront. The real issues standing in the way of a negotiated settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue are daunting enough: verification and timing issues; the fears and ambitions of regional players such as Israel, Turkey and the Gulf states; Iran’s right to enrichment; the ongoing shadow war between the two sides; and very real questions about whether either Iran or the United States genuinely wants a deal or is capable of agreeing to or implementing one. But nobody should dismiss the significance of that added layer of mutual incomprehension and radically opposing narratives, and the cognitive or political incentives to keep them that way. If there’s any real hope of reaching a deal, then at some point those pre-negotiations are going to have to begin. 

This obviously isn’t the first time that such exchanges between top former American and Iranian officials have taken place, so I don’t want to exaggerate its significance. But it was fascinating to watch it unfold in public (similar encounters I’ve witnessed have all been at private, off the record events). Real talks, so urgently needed, will be carried out by people who think, talk and act very much like their highly professional and experienced former colleagues. In other words, as Burns told me afterwards, the conversation on the Camden stage probably looked something like the opening round of the real direct Iranian-American talks — especially if they are done in public: testy at times, exposing more disagreement than consensus, and not visibly changing any minds … but nonetheless a critical first step.