The Iran Nuclear Talks
The Iran Nuclear Talks
Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The ministers of foreign affairs and other officials from the P5+1 countries, the EU and Iran while announcing the framework of a Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, Switzerland, 2 April 2015. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
The ministers of foreign affairs and other officials from the P5+1 countries, the EU and Iran while announcing the framework of a Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, Switzerland, 2 April 2015. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Impact Note / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

The Iran Nuclear Talks

Helping the Iran Nuclear Talks to the Finish Line

In addition to the highly committed negotiators, many have lent a hand to help forge a deal between Tehran and the rest of the world on Iran’s nuclear program. But when it comes to impact per dollar spent on this vital step toward conflict prevention in the Middle East, few can match the record of International Crisis Group.

Before the latest and most successful series of talks began in 2012, Crisis Group had already written five reports on the issue, supervised by Gareth Evans, its then-president and a leading non-proliferation statesman, and guided by Robert Malley, then our Middle East Program Director. In those early papers, at a time when nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the international community were at a standoff, Crisis Group was a lonely voice that laid the analytical base for the eventual core compromise: acceptance of limited Iranian enrichment, in the context of a transparent program under tight controls.

Crisis Group Senior Iran Analyst, on stage ahead of press conference to announce that a deal had been reached, Vienna, Austria, 14 July 2015. TWITTER/Ali Vaez

In 2012, Malley was joined by Ali Vaez, a young Iranian PhD in nuclear and biochemical sciences with a strong record of writing about the talks, who became our Iran Senior Analyst. Fluent in Persian, English and French, Vaez quickly engaged negotiators from Iran and the P5+1/E3+3. In February 2013 he travelled to the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at that time the only independent analyst following the talks on the ground. Over the next two years he clocked up 300,000 air miles, observing and increasingly engaging with 22 rounds of negotiations at the levels of experts, political directors, foreign ministers, and at the United Nations.

Soon negotiators, non-proliferation experts and high-level officials from Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, the UK and France began to invite Vaez to exchange views by telephone, by email and at the negotiations venue. Empowered by the trust the parties had in his impartiality, insights and the access he had individually built up with all sides, he became a critical sounding board and source of ideas to overcome impasses in the talks.

In the final week leading up to the July 2015 final accord in Vienna, Vaez was effectively on call round the clock. He could be invited by negotiators for breakfast as early as 6am or for late night encounters at 2am on their way to bed. In the heat of the negotiations, the foreign minister of one major party to the talks spent two hours thrashing out ideas with him; on another occasion the entire negotiating team of another country invited him to dinner to discuss ways forward.

Media commentaries by Vaez were circulated among negotiators as he sought to build support for the deal in public opinion, especially in the U.S.. At peak times he gave ten major news interviews per day, making Crisis Group omnipresent on all analysis of the nuclear talks in the international press. The highest impact on the talks however came from six further written reports, a collaborative Crisis Group output to which Vaez was the lead contributor.

A first report in 2012 laid bare the consequences of not making progress, a second shed light on the intertwined spider web of sanctions that confused both the Iranians and Western officials who had levied them against Iran, a third in 2013 underlined the opportunity for real progress created by the emergence of a new president in Iran. The underlying Crisis Group proposals for a solution were increasingly compelling, developed in a virtuous circle of in-depth consultations and back-and-forths with all sides. In May 2014 Crisis Group published Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube, and the ideas this report laid out were rapidly integrated into formal discussions at the negotiating table.

Warren Senate Banking Committee on Iran Sanctions

Senate Banking Committee - Iran Sanctions

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren's Q&A at the U.S. Senate Banking Committee Hearing titled "Iran Sanctions: Ensuring Robust Enforcement, and Assessing Next Steps", 4 June 2013. YOUTUBE/Senator Elizabeth Warren

“I’m sure you’ve seen the report from International Crisis Group in which they evaluated those [tough U.S.] sanctions, in terms of how easy it would be to remove them”, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a public hearing on the talks in June 2013.

“If the Iranians see the sanctions can’t be lifted, then they will be all the more firmly entrenched in pursuing nuclear weapons. We have broad consensus in this country that we would prefer a negotiated solution in the Middle East. If [as Crisis Group argues] badly designed sanctions are going to increase the likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, then we need to focus now on how to fix that”.

As a whole, this series of reports became classic examples of how Crisis Group reporting both does primary research on a conflict and uses that to set the agenda for its resolution. Our commentary and analysis also played a key role in informing the world of what has been agreed so far, and what challenges remained. As well as our contribution of verbatim phrases to the November 2013 “Interim Agreement”, Crisis Group’s 40-point plan towards a nuclear accord presaged many key parts of the April 2015 “Framework Agreement” in Lausanne and eventual nuclear accord in Vienna on 14 July. Iran’s foreign minister sent a private message to Crisis Group acknowledging our significant contribution, and a senior U.S. official wrote: “I am sure you recognize your language in the final text”.

Well before these final agreements, International Crisis Group had already turned its focus to the next stage: convincing Iran’s Majles and the U.S. Congress that the deal was a good one. In April 2015 we published comprehensive talking points for the U.S. and Iranian negotiators to take home and used a popular and innovative infographic to show the advantages for all of a deal against a no-deal. As we drummed home our support for a fair compromise deal, major newspapers from the New York Times to Le Monde had already quoted us more than 150 times in the first half of 2015, not including 13 full interviews and 11 op-eds in English, Arabic, German and Persian. In July, we began to deploy Ali Vaez, other senior staff and board members into our campaign for the deal to be ratified in Washington DC.

Not that Crisis Group is an unknown quantity on this subject in the U.S. capital, of course. In 2015, our former Middle East supremo Robert Malley became Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region. Already in 2014, he had made the best possible use of his long Crisis Group experience on the nuclear issue when he joined the official U.S. negotiating team.

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