According to a July 13 report in the Wall Street Journal, the Obama Administration intends to press for direct negotiations with Tehran. According to the report, this follows Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, sending “positive signals both publicly and privately about his interest in engaging with the international community on the nuclear issue.”
The report also quotes a senior official as saying: “We are open to direct talks, and we want to reinforce this in any way [we can].”
The history of US–Iranian relations is filled with failed talks, both secret and open. Nevertheless, despite the hostile relations between the two states since the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there have been offers to open dialogue from one or both parties under the tenure of every president of the United States.
There are many indications that both parties are willing to resolve their disputes, from the secret trip by Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s special envoy to Tehran, in 1986 and Iran’s unofficial proposal for a “grand bargain” in 2003, to Iran’s cooperation with the Americans in overthrowing the Taliban in 2001 and President Obama’s offer of a “new beginning” in his 2009 remarks for the Iranian New Year.
However, until now the two countries have not been able to find a way out of the quagmire of non-negotiation and non-compromise. This pattern did not exist between the United States and its foes even in the Cold War, when the US maintained diplomatic relations with the communist bloc.
In this article, there is no space to delve into causes of the formation of this rare relationship; however, major factors that have obstructed the formation of a sustained and meaningful negotiation process can be briefly mentioned.
Some point to Israeli hostility to Iran as one of the reasons for the continued antagonism between the US and Iran. Many argue that given the hostility between Iran and Israel, no agreement can be reached and no deal can be made between the United States and Iran. Re-establishing normal relations between the US and Iran is far-fetched as long as Iran and Israel maintain their hostile posture toward each other; however, there is a distinction between conducting meaningful talks and restoring relations. Meaningful talks can help reduce tensions and lead to finding solutions to critical issues, such as the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, without necessarily and immediately leading to re-establishing relations.
Aside from the role of Israel, there are bilateral tensions between the US and Iran that ensure that relations remain adversarial. Deep mistrust is one of the major factors obstructing the formation of meaningful dialogue between the two countries. Both sides have a long list of elements that have shaped their mistrust of each other.
In the case of Iran, the admitted role of the US in the 1953 coup d’état and the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq, Iran’s popular and democratically-elected prime minister, is central to and the beginning of Iran’s mistrust toward the US.
In the case of the Americans, seizure of their embassy in Tehran in 1979 by radical students, followed by the taking of 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, marks the beginning of suspicion and distrust of the Iranian government.
This poisonous mindset, saturated with doubt and suspicion, has created a chronic bias that precludes the formation of an environment suitable for constructive negotiations.
Another obstacle to dialogue is the activities of hardliners and spoilers on both sides of the fence. These elements constantly sabotage US–Iran relations and escalate the level of hostility between the two governments. In Iran, the hardline faction has consistently tried to define talks with the US as the red line of the nezam (establishment), while Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, stated in March that he is “not opposed” to direct talks with the United States—although he remarked that he is “not optimistic,” either.
The next factor that blocks enduring talks between the US and Iran is the role that pride has in Iran’s politics, and the fact that it is entirely ignored by American policymakers. For better or worse, Iranians are a proud people. This characteristic has roots in Iran’s long history and its longstanding geopolitical influence in the region. The notion of pride plays a pervasive role in Iran’s politics. It was pride that gave the impetus to the shah’s ambitious plans.
The language that the Americans use is dominated by threats and intimidation, while their policies toward Iran are centered on coercion. This approach closes the door on the establishment of enduring talks. The Iranian party is not receptive to this language, and therefore either predictably reacts irrationally or leaves the negotiations.
To Western politicians, political decisions are often made within a framework of cost and benefit analyses, so it is incomprehensible to them how pride can play a decisive role in policy-making.
Prominent Iran experts, such as George Perkovich and Shahram Chubin, have asserted that national pride drives Iran’s nuclear program. Kamal Kharrazi, Iran’s former foreign minister, once said that “no government [in Iran] can relinquish an issue that has gained it national pride.” Bearing this in mind, if any direct talks between the two governments are to take place, the issue of mistrust must be noted and compensated for. A mediator familiar with both the Iranian and Western cultures could help sustain the talks. The role of the mediator would be to correct chronic misunderstandings between the two parties, and could be filled by a third country or a group of people.
Since hardliners on both sides of the fence become more active as direct talks near, watching their complex moves may help to save the negotiations from failure.
The language of threat and intimidation will result in the failure of the talks, as has been repeatedly experienced in the past. It is noteworthy that the Iranian leadership has constantly linked the nuclear program to ezzat-e melli (national dignity), ensuring that Iranian negotiators cannot retreat or offer concessions under coercion.
Finally, as a former Iranian diplomat told this author, both sides should be ready “to give big in order to get big.”
The opportunity that has now emerged to resolve the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program is new; it did not exist for the last eight years. Hassan Rouhani is determined to bring this stalemate to an end. The Iranian people, by voting for him, have participated in a referendum and have voted to bring the nuclear issue to a conclusion.
Crucially, given Iran’s faltering economy and Rouhani’s landslide victory over his conservative rivals, Iran’s supreme leader will not raise a barrier to his reconciliatory policies. Rouhani has clearly drawn the lines, saying: “We should break the sanctions . . . [and] we should take the Iran dossier off the United Nations table.”
If Rouhani is not given the chance to ease the sanctions on Iran in exchange for some concessions on their nuclear program, as Iran’s economy deteriorates further, the hardliners will likely organize a mass campaign against him, probably in the next few months. Ultimately, they will first marginalize and eventually neutralize him.
The fact that the United States has reacted swiftly to Rouhani’s election is grounds for optimism, and is an indication that Americans have realized the urgency of the issue at hand.