Three lessons the Iran nuclear deal can teach climate negotiators

Proposed Paris deal runs to over 100 pages but to secure agreement envoys need a plan to manage the toxic politics 

Representatives from the P5+1 pose after agreement on an Iran nuclear pact was agreed on April 2 (Pic: State Department/Flickr)

Representatives from the P5+1 pose after agreement on an Iran nuclear pact was agreed on April 2 (Pic: State Department/Flickr)

By Nick Chan

The job of reducing global carbon emissions might seem like a world away from efforts to address the proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

The former has the task of mobilising not just governments, but business, civil society, and individuals to transform our energy system; the latter the task of attempting to regulate spinning centrifuges and the enrichment of uranium.

The successful recent conclusion of the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in Lausanne, however, contains important lessons on the dynamics of international negotiations, which are also reflected in the ongoing efforts to reach a new international agreement on climate change at this year’s Paris conference.

Politics first

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted at the conclusion of the Lausanne negotiations: “Found solutions. Ready to begin drafting immediately”.

To many observers, this must have seemed strange. Surely you begin by drafting, and then narrow differences to reach a consensus agreement?

What kind of agreement is it if there is no written draft?

What Zarif was referring to, however, was that the landmark ‘solutions’ agreed were the political parameters for a ‘comprehensive plan of action’ – little more than a series of bullet points at this stage on who will do what.

The full plan is still to be developed in further talks over the next three months, and drafted in legal language.

Of course, thorny details still remain, and plenty of scope for the whole process to unravel.

But the sequence of things – a clear set of political guidelines agreed by foreign ministers, to be followed by the technical process of defining timelines for centrifuge removal, new reactor designs, and so on – is clear.

As it stands, the UN’s draft for the Paris conference at the end of the most recent round of talks in Geneva, and recently circulated to governments in all six UN languages, is more of a communal shopping list of close to a hundred pages rather than a political bargain.

In the absence of a common political understanding being reached on what the Paris outcome should be, work to whittle down the draft into a more manageable text in the half-year that remains will be plagued by delegations attempting to negotiate, through technical details, a political vision for the Paris agreement.

Thus a series of other stepping stones – the G7 summit in Germany in June, the conclusion of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals negotiations, and many more informal gatherings – will be key in attempting to find the political zone of agreement that will provide the technical negotiations with the structure they desperately need.

Commitments must be verified

“Trust, but verify”, former US President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying during arms control talks with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Barack Obama took this a step further in his remarks from the White House after the Iran agreement was announced, arguing that “this deal is not based on trust, but unprecedented verification”.

What both presidents were attempting to convey was the idea that the terms of any agreement would be based as much on the commitments reached in good faith as on procedures to monitor their implementation.

At stake here is a familiar tension between concerns over sovereignty and non-interference, and the potential intrusiveness of such verification processes into a country’s domestic affairs.

The trick is to find a balance that will provide all sides with the confidence that others are living up to their commitments and side of the bargain.

Some arms reduction agreements involved sending officials to watch the explosive destruction of missile silos.

Verification – or the trinity of monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV), as it is known in UN jargon – is far less dramatic, but equally important, for the climate talks.

For instance, countries have to report on their greenhouse gas data and specify what the various sectors of the economy contribute.

But others want to know that these numbers have are credible, because they will be the baselines against which to measure progress (or not) in reducing emissions.

Equally, at stake in negotiations leading up to Paris, will be the shape of verification processes for not just mitigation commitments, but the provision of finance, technology transfer, and capacity-building support for developing countries to reduce their commitments.

For instance, developing countries want to know how finance pledges are, and will be, met over the coming years.

As recently reported here, this aspect of the talks – framed in softer terms as assessment and review – will be a key element of the Paris agreement.

Manage the spoilers

In an attempt to torpedo the Iran negotiations, a few weeks ago 47 US Senators wrote to the ‘leaders of Iran’ to warn them that the terms of an agreement made by the Obama administration could be voided or altered by the US Congress ‘at any time’.

This intervention did not prevent reaching a deal in Lausanne, but was a shot across the bows of the US negotiating effort and a reminder of domestic opposition that could yet scupper a final agreement.

Political scientists call this a two-level game, where governments are not just negotiating with other governments, but responding to the political challenges made by domestic pressure groups that can influence the course of negotiations themselves.

Both the US and Iran have their nuclear hardliners, and climate politics also sees the same challenge, where inaction on climate change may have electoral benefits at home and domestic support for climate action may only be shallow.

Indeed, the possibility that the ‘leaders of the rest of the world’ might see a similar letter ahead of Paris has not been lost on other observers.

How governments prepare their domestic publics will be crucial to the type of Paris agreement that is reached.

Nick Chan is a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford, and has served as an advisor to the delegations of Vanuatu and Palau to the UN climate talks. Follow him on twitter @nickdotchan 

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