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Serious doubts over the interim agreement with Iran have come swiftly. A “train wreck” is how CNN’s Fareed Zacharia described this agreement following an interview with Iran’s President Rouhani just days after this new compact was announced to the world with glowing optimism.
We now have dueling interpretations of what was agreed upon combined with a refusal to publicly release the full text of this implementation agreement.
In today’s political environment, there is a case to be made that these planned negotiations would benefit by the establishment of a specific diplomatic tool — public talks. With this proposal, there would be a four- to six-week interval of public talks at an agreed-upon time frame.
While objections to this approach are easy to anticipate, these critics have the burden of defending secrecy at a time when secrecy has manifested itself as a towering problem. If this agreement with Iran comes to pass, the facts and positions are going to come out sooner or later. If the early details do not match up to the actual agreement, that could cause the whole thing to blow up at some future time.
Formal rules and terms that created a level communication playing field between two sides would be at the heart of public talks. Given the political realities of the current negotiations, these overall parameters would need to be shaped by the same P5 + 1 nations, the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., France, Germany and the other side, Iran.
The process of public talks would be featured within a series of magazine-size documents of approximately 12-pages each, which would be accessible on a formally established Internet platform. In some cases, these dialogue documents could also be distributed through one or two major print media.
Within a dialogue document would be each side’s interpretation of history, negotiating positions, questions to one’s adversary and other content relevant to unresolved conflicts. Later stages of public talks would focus on the trade-offs required to reach agreement.
Engaging the wider public in this step-by-step process could influence the larger issue of sanctions. Congress is a close observer of these negotiations, as they can effectively calibrate the severity of these penalties. If the American public sees that trade-offs to get to an agreement on this nuclear issue are reasonable, this could have an effect on Congress‘ approach to sanctions.
A critic could say, let all the planned secret talks play themselves out. Don’t consider some new platform that would effectively bring the world public into the heart of these negotiations. The basic plan to resolve this issue is underway.
Any number of issues could still derail this negotiating progress. With public talks there would be a fuller exposition of the overall issues and positions. This may create sufficient public support that would allow that agreement to hold together over the long haul of this process.
The back and forth exchanges on history could lay the foundation for a wider understanding of commonly accepted facts. The history section of a dialogue document could become a central element in the overall process of public talks.
This open process would yield a far broader understanding of the basic trade-offs for two sides to reach an agreement, thus creating a momentum towards settlement. Yet, when no compromise is acceptable, the reasons for this position will become clearer than ever.
The expanded knowledge of the central details of these conflicts would create a new perspective: much of the international community would be watching the words and assurances of those leaders within these dialogue documents. This would lead to a greater public understanding of the details of conflicts.
Amidst the battle of ideas taking place today, support for public talks will affirm a nation’s interest in not just the symptoms of international conflicts but also their underlying causes. Nations that do not fear open discussion will more likely see its principles embraced around the world.
John Connolly is the executive director of the Institute for Public Dialogue.