Iran's "Dignity" Dialogue

Tehran Changed Its Negotiating Tactics—Here's Why

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) walks in a courtyard at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, March 28, 2015. Brendan Smialowski / Reuters

In November 2013, just before Tehran signed the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) with the P5+1 negotiating partners, the Iranians released a YouTube message. The video went viral, partly due to the content, which was remarkable, but even more so because of the choice of medium. Seated against a backdrop of books and a flag, Iran’s English-speaking foreign minister became the first-ever Iranian leader to directly address the world, through an outlet long banned by the Islamic Republic.

Mohammad Javad Zarif did not begin his address with a lecture about Iran’s “rights,” which, to some, appeared odd. At the time, custom held that any official utterance about the nuclear program begin with a demarcation of Iran’s declared rights. Indeed, “nuclear energy is our inalienable right,” had turned into the Iranian mantra under the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   

But Zarif, who holds a Ph.D. in International Law and Policy from the University of Denver, had other plans. Instead of offering a lecture on international law, he began his YouTube address by rhetorically asking: “What is dignity? What is respect?”

The Iranian foreign minister’s choice to reframe the discourse on the nuclear issue as a question of dignity had two important consequences.

For years, negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program had been deadlocked by Tehran’s demand for explicit recognition of its “right” to enrichment and Washington’s zero-enrichment posture. Western powers could never give in to Iran’s demand. Doing so would pave the way for other nations to enrich uranium, potentially opening a Pandora’s box. It could also cause the collapse of the UN-backed sanctions on Iran.

By focusing on dignity rather than rights, Iran smoothly removed a key obstacle to negotiations, while giving the West incentive to reciprocate by implicitly recognizing enrichment on Iranian soil. This cold calculation paved the way for the interim agreement struck in November 2013. Indeed, upon signing that agreement, Zarif asserted that “the Iranian people demand respect for their rights

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