How Iran nuclear negotiators can learn lessons of Oslo
If learning from failure is smart, then the lessons we learn from the mistakes of others are even smarter. The Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are rich in both lessons and mistakes that can benefit the US-Iranian negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.
There is no doubt that the negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have failed. These were conducted under the “Declaration of Principles,” otherwise known as the Oslo Accords. One of the characteristics of the Oslo mechanism is that it allowed for an “interim period” for confidence-building before tackling the difficult questions of the “permanent status” negotiations. It also recognized that not all issues are purely bilateral and that there are other regional and international stakeholders. It thus allowed for multilateral tracks for issues like refugees, Jerusalem and water, in parallel with the bilateral negotiations.
Jerusalem and refugees were the two most difficult elements and they ultimately brought the process to a halt. They are the two main issues that are not purely bilateral, in that any agreement reached between Israel and the PLO would not be valid and could never be implemented without the participation of the other parties involved. But the negotiations remained bilateral to avoid too many complications.
The problem was that the PLO could not give concessions on behalf of the refugees outside the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Nothing obliged those living in other host countries to agree to the terms if they were not involved in the negotiations, so their participation was necessary for the implementation of any agreement. By the same token, Jerusalem is of global concern and the PLO had difficulty making concessions without being accountable to the broader Arab and Muslim stakeholders.
Israel imposed two conditions to ensure that no future claims from refugees or demands on Jerusalem and other issues would emerge in the future: One was that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and the other was that Palestinians should declare an end to all claims once an agreement was reached. While these conditions were designed to avoid future claims, it was impossible for the PLO to comply with them because it did not have the mandate from other parties to sign on their behalf. The main problem with any PLO-Israel agreement was that it could not override the individual rights of refugees or other host countries’ rights and concerns.
To help mitigate these problems, there were several international initiatives designed to give incentives and guarantees to both parties. The most important was the Arab Peace Initiative (API) proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and endorsed by both the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The API was a pledge to normalize relations with Israel if a bilateral agreement was reached that included a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem and an agreed solution to the refugees, according to UN resolutions. This offers a comprehensive regional dimension to any agreement, should one be reached.
There was hardly anything joint or comprehensive in the JCPOA, nor was there a plan of action beyond postponing part of the overall problem for 15 years. Negotiations focused exclusively on the nuclear issue, which was deemed complicated enough without adding the regional concerns.
Issues such as the Iranian ballistic missile program and the intervention of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) proxy militias in the region were left for later, but later would never come because Iran had no interest in discussing them. They constitute the most difficult elements to resolve if a comprehensive peace is to be reached.
Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry declared that both sides had decided not to include geopolitical complications in the negotiations that led to the 2015 deal. It is widely believed that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared that he had no mandate to discuss anything other than the nuclear issue, and that if these concerns were raised he would have to leave the room.
Furthermore, the Arab Gulf states — those with most at stake in the matter — were not consulted over the Iran deal. The whole region now bears the consequences: Iranian ballistic missiles threaten Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, while IRGC-affiliated militias have been emboldened and have become more active in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Like with the Oslo process, Iran’s militias and its ballistic missile program were not exclusively bilateral between the negotiators. Unlike Oslo, however, there were no parallel multilateral tracks, no interim periods and no parallel initiatives to process more inclusive discussions.
This is where the lessons from Oslo can be useful. As discussions are taking place in Vienna to revive the JCPOA, some of the sanctions relief could be staggered during an interim period to rebuild confidence between the parties. Here, the parties should include the allies of the US, even if they are not at the table. The interim period could include conditions on progress in regional relations, as well as a decrease in IRGC activities and Iran’s ballistic missile program.
The Gulf states could promise normalization and good neighborly relations with Iran if the threats from militias and missiles are curbed.
A counterpart to the API could be introduced by the Gulf states, promising normalization and good neighborly relations with Iran if the threats from militias and missiles are curbed. There are already signs of rapprochement and declarations of intent on all sides, but this could be formalized and tied to the Vienna talks in the manner of the permanent status negotiations with the aim of achieving regional peace and stability. In addition, an Arab initiative could give Iran some guarantees under the broader vision of regional peace and stability, together with trade and economic incentives.
There is no assurance that this would succeed, of course. Missiles and militias are instruments of Iranian hegemony in the region and they give the IRGC the upper hand. The problem is that there are two Irans: One is an official state at the negotiating table that signs agreements and the other is the IRGC, which can act contrary to these agreements without accountability. Such a mechanism would merge the two and hold them responsible.
- Nadim Shehadi is executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an associate fellow of Chatham House in London.