One of the most useful things I learned at the Kennedy School of Government several years ago was about leadership and negotiation. Charisma, persuasiveness, and a high tolerance for ambiguity are certainly helpful for a successful negotiation, but by no means sufficient. It is also necessary to diagnose parties’ motivations, zones of potential agreement, possible alternatives, coalitions that could shift power in desired directions, and the best possible process for managing difficult negotiations. Without this methodology one can only hope for the best. But planning each element of a negotiation process increases the odds of success.

I left Harvard just as the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) entered negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Three years later, the world is still looking for the best way to get out of this crisis. Tehran keeps refusing to comply with IAEA and UN demands, using all kinds of pressure, from denying access to UN inspectors (January 27, 2007) to threatening the very existence of Israel. Many fear uncontrolled escalation in the region and beyond. The consensus maintained so far seems to be deteriorating suddenly. It is useful, at this critical moment, to recall the rationale of the EU approach. Even if success is far from being guaranteed, there is, for the time being, no better alternative.

The Iranian Negotiation Process: A Double Track Policy

At first sight, the current stalemate could be perceived as a failure of international diplomacy to turn Iran away from its provocative policies. But looking closer, this tension is very much the result of a delicate double track strategy that combines negotiations and UN Security Council involvement. The EU has followed this policy from the very beginning of the Iranian nuclear crisis. From the Tehran Agreement (October 2003) and Paris Agreement (November 2004) to UNSC resolution 1737, the EU3 (Germany, UK, France) have been engaging Iran with the support of other P5 members, while at the same time sending strong messages to its leaders.  

This double track approach has been described by many as too slow and ineffective. There is, however, no better alternative. First, such an approach has certainly slowed down the clandestine nuclear program by allowing IAEA inspections and disrupting the Iranian fuel cycle learning curve. Second, and this is key, it has maintained consensus among P5 members. No one would have bet on Russia and China voting for UN sanctions against Tehran. Third, this has brought credibility to the European Union concept of effective multilateralism and, in addition, to the UNSC. The pressure put on Iran by the EU through incremental, proportionate and reversible UN sanctions has helped convince the United States that this method was the right one. The so called good cop/bad cop tactics have functioned well because the EU was credible in its willingness to combine dialogue and sanctions if necessary.    

The offers made by the EU were far from empty. The European package addressed to Tehran in the beginning of summer 2005 was comprised of nuclear technology, trade advantages, and a security dialogue. Many of the ideas (fuel assurances, cooperation between EURATOM and Iran, research reactors, regional security architecture, EC/Iran Trade & Cooperation Agreement, WTO accession) could have made a difference. This offer was certainly open to discussion (elaborating, for instance, on current projects on Multilateral Nuclear Arrangements) and improvement (looking, for instance, at the pros and cons of the North Korean experience with KEDO) but Tehran turned the package down before even considering it. Such an attitude certainly shifted the Russian stance, for its enrichment proposals were also rejected. It just seemed that Tehran would refuse to examine any offer that did not include uranium enrichment on the Iranian soil.  

UN Security Council: A Key New Actor in Nuclear Proliferation Crises     

Some renown experts, as well as a few countries involved in the crisis, have been considering allowing permanent R&D uranium enrichment on the Iranian soil  because it not only conforms to the  NPT, but also because it may be the only way out of the deadlock. This is not correct. First, if Iran can master 12 centrifuges, it will sooner or later be able to master 50,000 since there is no real technology threshold. Second, contrary to what Tehran claims, there is no right to enrich uranium under the NPT. The treaty only refers to the inalienable right to develop pacific uses of nuclear energy (Article IV). Third, this right is anyhow conditional to the respect of non-proliferation concerns (Article II). Those concerns have not been met according to numerous IAEA and UNSC resolutions adopted during these last three years. Past activities including dual use issues (sources of contamination, historic of P1-P2 centrifuges, laser) as well as military concerns (uranium metal, means of delivery) remain unclear. The EU3/EU have been trying for the last 3 years to avoid referring Iran to the UNSC and possibly sanctioning it by asking Tehran to clarify uncertainties about what are supposed to be its exclusively peaceful activities while suspending fuel cycle activities and heavy water activities that do not make economic sense. Instead, Tehran breached the Paris Agreement, resumed conversion, and undertook R&D enrichment and production of enriched uranium up to 3.5% with 164 centrifuges (April 2006) while testing a second cascade with the intention to install 3000 centrifuges by March 2007. This does not build trust.  

To be completely fair, Iran does not trust the international community either. But the burden of proof is on Tehran for it has violated its international obligations. The IAEA has been unable to prove that the Iranian nuclear program is for civilian use only.  Under the UNSC resolutions 1696 and 1737, it is for Tehran to bear the burden of proof. The matter has become political given the fact that Tehran refused to comply with IAEA requests. This has increased UNSC credibility in the nonproliferation domain. With two UNSC resolutions against Tehran in 2006, a new dynamic has emerged. Proliferators are now aware that the UN is determined to play a major role in the fight against proliferation of WMD. If the next report of the IAEA expected on February 23, 2007 confirms that Tehran did not comply with IAEA and UN demands, additional steps may be taken by the UNSC. Only the suspension of uranium enrichment, reprocessing, and heavy water activities could lead to the suspension of the UNSC process.          

It is time now to look beyond the negotiation process and beyond UN sanctions to see what the players best alternatives are if they decide to leave the table.     

Iran and the international community BATNAs (Best Alternatives to a Negotiated Agreement) 

The Iranian negotiation process is stalled again. Is it time to look at possible alternatives? For years, Iran has been threatening to withdraw from the NPT and kick out IAEA inspectors. The bill adopted by the Iranian Parliament at the end of December 2006, in retaliation to the 1737 UNSC resolution, asserts that the government should revise its cooperation with the IAEA. The Guardian Council of Islamic Clerics has rarely approved a bill so swiftly. Any move in this direction will be disastrous not only for monitoring Iranian nuclear program (which already difficult to control under regular safeguards) but also for the credibility of the NPT itself. When North Korea left the treaty in January 2003, the international community lost track of the real development of Pyongyang atomic program.  No one is sure whether the NPT can survive a second withdrawal (in any case, as France has proposed, the UN Security Council or NPT parties should update and clarify the withdrawal provisions of the treaty to preclude a country calculating that it could not comply with its safeguards and other obligations and then withdraw without consequences).

NPT withdrawal is not the worst alternative to the lack of agreement for Iran. With obvious involvement in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, Iran is a major actor in Middle East political stability. On the economic front, oil embargoes from Tehran would certainly create a backlash for Iran’s own development but could, first, damage the world financial markets in an unpredictable way. The international community is perfectly aware of these strong Best Alternatives to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNAs) for Iran. That is the reason why only incremental steps adopted with a large consensus are possible.  

This is not to say that the international community has no BATNAs of its own. Over the past year, the Bush administration has tried, with some success, to persuade bankers across Europe and Asia to choke Iranian and North Korea access to the world financial system. To the same extent, export control regimes and counter-proliferation initiatives like the Proliferation Security Initiative have helped monitor the flux of sensitive goods and technology from and to Iran. With UNSC 1737, some of these measures are now embodied in UN demands. Tehran is also aware of other wilder United States BATNAs: use of military force and regime change. It would require a crystal ball to understand how those threats have played in the negotiation process. But from the very beginning, the EU3 have made clear that the Iranian nuclear crisis was about proliferation, not regime change. The United States agreed to be less vocal on its personal dispute with Tehran but these threats remain an undeniable factor in the decision making of Iranian authorities.  

EU Unique Approach: There is No Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement 

Players’ cards look good for both Iran and the rest of the world, making the risks of escalation today real. In Iran, Rafsanjani stated on December 31, 2006 that there would be consequences if Tehran was treated unfairly over its nuclear program. "Westerners are creating problems for themselves and the region ... the consequences of this fire will burn many others,” he told worshippers. Recent events (midterm elections creating a majority of Democrats in the US Congress and the defeat of Ahmandinejad’s supporters during recent local Iranian elections) as well as future elections in key countries (United States, United Kingdom, France) may complicate further the possible scenarios. To be sure, each party around the table will try to improve its own BATNA while diminishing others’ leverage.

However, for the European Union there is no viable alternative to a negotiated agreement supported by the IAEA and UN Security Council. Wild cards will only create wild scenarios. The policy of the EU has been a double track strategy - privileging negotiations while preparing for incremental and reversible restrictive measures - and should remain so. We certainly all know the drawbacks of such a process. It took four months of consultation and debates in the Iranian nuclear crisis to approved UNSC resolution 1737. It is clear that Russia has helped Iran avoid harsher measures. But this is a small price to pay for maintaining consensus among key countries. China and Russia are still on board despite divergent interests with other P5 members. This is, so far, the greatest achievement of all. It shows that the UN can be the relevant body to deal with major crises. One of the lessons learned from the negotiation of resolution 1737 is that countries care mainly about the protection of their own interests. It may have come as a surprise to Tehran who knows now that, in fine, it can only count on itself

Of course, the current consensus is fragile and next steps may even be more difficult than the previous ones. Besides, consensus is no guarantee against escalation. It is difficult to assess if the conflict has already reached a stalemate, a situation in which neither side can win. If the pain of continuing the conflict exceeds that of maintaining the confrontation, the parties are in a hurting stalemate which often presents an ideal opportunity for real negotiation and a potential settlement. No one is sure whether the Iranian nuclear crisis is already at this point. Presidents Ahmandinejad and Bush’s harsh statements show otherwise.

However, the EU continues to believe that, beyond sanctions, a multilateral dialogue is essential. Such a suggestion is not actually new. The EC-Iran Trade Cooperation Agreement (TCA) as well as the EU-Iran Political Dialogue have been off and on since December 2002. The last pause in TCA negotiations dated August 2005 after Iran resumed uranium conversion. Despite the nuclear standoff, the EU Commission is still providing assistance to Iran (counter-narcotics, disaster relief, Afghan refugees’ repatriation, European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights) with more to come if Tehran is willing to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. Interesting proposals are currently being discussed to offer fuel cycles assurances to countries that will renounce voluntary to enrichment and reprocessing activities. Iran can be part of these initiatives, provided full cooperation with the IAEA is restored and light is shed by Tehran on its past and current activities.

Restoring trust between Tehran and the international community and, in particular, between Tehran and the United States, is very much the objective of the EU3. It is a long process because the damage between the two countries goes beyond the nuclear issue. Both countries need to adjust their respective positions. This is difficult for Washington, that knows perfectly well that negotiation implies compromises that enable all parties to claim victories. But US BATNAs are fragile and may not be supported by the international community. Besides, it is hard  to understand why the Bush administration would agree to offer security guarantees to North Korea and refuse it to Iran. The same goes for Tehran. Iranian authorities know that there is no other alternative than Iran’s integration in the international society and becoming a key constructive player in the region. Any other policy that will build on P5 division and uncontrolled escalation will hardly benefit the country. Unilateralism would then prevail, bringing worst case scenarios ahead. Does Tehran really want to look like North Korea? We can only assume that those at the head of the Iranian Republic who want to avoid complete isolation will prevail.


Bruno Dupré has been dispatched by France to the EU Commission, in October 2006, to support the implementation of the EU Strategy against WMD in close coordination with the Council.Before that he was the Head of the Non Proliferation and Disarmament Bureau at the French Ministry of Defense. He holds a Ph.D in law and a Master from the Kennedy School. He wrote this analysis for the Carnegie Endowment. The opinions expressed here are personnal and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the EU or the French Republic.