A report in today’s Independent has now conferred the semi-official status of “backchannel negotiation” to Thomas Pickering’s proposal, published last month in the NY Review of Books, for resolving the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The plan (which was co-authored by William Luers and Jim Walsh, and resulted from five years worth of discussions between Pickering & co. and their Iranian counterparts) called for, among other things, a multi-national uranium enrichment facility placed under IAEA supervision but located within Iran.
The plan has the merit of fully satisfying no one, while providing everyone with an opportunity to save face. As opposed to a Russian proposal that would create a uranium enrichment facility for third-party use within Russia, the Pickering plan would amount to a technology transfer to the Iranians, probably to a much more sophisticated degree than their current program, which results from clandestine patchwork supply chains. On the other hand, the proposed facility would be operated by a multi-national consortium and overseen by the IAEA, making Iran’s nuclear capabilities (and ambitions) much more transparent than they currently are.
Significantly, according to the article, backchannel negotiations usually come to light once they’ve already failed, or once they’ve gathered a critical mass of support. Pickering maintains that the Bush administration was kept informed of the talks and “did not discourage” them. He also maintains that response on both sides has been positive. I expressed some skepticism about the plan when it was published, but today’s report coincides with an announcement by the Iranian Foreign Minister that Iran will be presenting a broad proposal for regional stability that should satisfy the P5+1, as well as recent reports of an evolution in the kinds of incentives the U.S. was willing to offer Iran.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister also expressed his impatience with the failure of both the U.S. and Iran, despite repeated invitations and stated support, to attend tri-lateral security talks for Iraq. So who knows? The chances seem slim that this gets pulled off while Bush and Ahmadinejad remain in office. But the costs (and risks) of continuing the current silent standoff provide quite a bit of incentive to prepare the way for the next administration to reach a satisfactory compromise.