Post #29 – Obstacle Course: Engaging Iran

If the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program fail to result in a comprehensive agreement by the July 20 deadline—an interim deal has been in place since January—it will not be due only to disagreements between Iran and the six-nation group that includes the US.  Attempts to engage adversaries are always constrained by domestic politics in every country involved in the undertaking.  Political careers, bureaucratic interests, personalities, and interest groups (such as business) are among the factors that impact international negotiations. Engagement threatens some people and benefits others, but usually in disproportionate ways.  After all, who wants to be seen as openly siding with “the enemy”?

President Obama has taken some political risks to engage Iran, a country that brings to mind many years of US political interference for Iranians and, for Americans, the hostage crisis of 1978.  The President and State Department obviously see merit in trying to stop a suspect Iranian nuclear program that would greatly complicate Middle East politics if it led to an arsenal of bombs such as North Korea has created.  On the President’s side is an Iranian-American community that would like to end sanctions on Iran, see US-Iran relations normalized, and make possible a return to an earlier time when business, educational exchanges, and family visits were .conducted without huge barriers.  Big Oil obviously is first in line when it comes to those corporations that would like to see commercial barriers with Iran removed.

To be sure, Obama must deal with Iran’s clerical leadership under the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a man who has renounced nuclear weapons more than once but who has frequently depicted the US as the Great Satan.  But while Obama ultimately must convince Khamenei that exchanging a potential nuclear weapon program for economic benefits is in everyone’s best interest, the President’s first order of business is to convince opponents of engagement in and around Washington, DC.  These opponents include supporters of Israel, whose government considers Obama naïve about Iran; hardliners in the Congress who prefer sanctions to diplomacy; Republicans and others on the right who sense a political opportunity to deride engagement as a strategy of the weak if not another Munich; and some former (and perhaps current) intelligence officials, who believe Iran will lie again just as it lied before about its nuclear activities.  All these folks operate on a bad-faith and worst-case model of world affairs.  Engagement, like other marketing problems, will be a tough sell.

Those in Iran who favor a nuclear deal with the West and a new relationship with it have even more formidable domestic political barriers to overcome.  One prominent Iranian on the side of engagement is the current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who was appointed following the surprise election of President Hassan Rouhani last summer.  Robin Wright profiles Zarif in the May 26 issue of The New Yorker.  She brings out the tough situation he faces—made even tougher, I imagine, because several US government figures who have come to know him praise him to the skies. Zarif will have to move carefully if he is to avoid being sidelined by Iran’s hardliners.  American-educated (he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Denver’s School of International Studies), Zarif is an obvious target of people whose careers and economic interests depend on continuation of US-Iran tensions.  For those people, the more reforms take hold inside Iran, the less influence they have over policy, whether domestic or international.  They will make every effort to sustain the idea that the West is out to destroy Iran and that the nuclear option must be pursued.

As Bill Keller of the New York Times has written, “Iran’s rejectionists and our own have much in common.”  Both, for example, “equate compromise with surrender,” and both hope the nuclear talks will fail.  They may be lying low now while the talks proceed, but you can bet they are ready to pounce, either to denounce an agreement on the basis that the other side will never abide by it or, should talks break down, to proclaim that negotiations with the enemy were never worthwhile and should never have been tried.

The suddenly desperate military situation in Iraq adds a new element to the US-Iran story.  The farther the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advances, the more nervous the leadership in Tehran becomes.  Partnering with Iran in order to stem ISIS might sound like an opportunity to move engagement forward a notch.  But this poses several problems.  First, a partnership could lead to Iran’s elite troops, the Quds force, entering Iraq and establishing a foothold there.  That would consolidate Iran’s already sizable political influence in Iraq.  Second, partnership would strengthen the Shiite-Sunni divide—the US and Iran would be fighting to reestablish Maliki’s predominately Shiite regime—just when bringing more Sunnis (as well as Kurds) into Iraq’s government is essential.  Third, too great a reliance on Iran for dealing with the Iraq situation might give Iran undue leverage in two arenas: the nuclear talks and Syria, where Iran supports the Assad regime.  Today’s (June 19) news out of Iran suggests that Tehran is indeed thinking along just such lines.

I believe Secretary of State John Kerry was right to say: “We’re open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and ability of the government to reform.”  “We are open to any constructive process here that would minimize the violence,” he added.  Sound advice, which I hope he takes himself as a guide to US involvement.

My view is therefore that the nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran should be kept separate from the Iraq situation.  The two countries do have a common interest in not seeing Iraq dismembered, as might happen if ISIS isn’t stopped and if the Kurds pursue their cause of a separate state.  That common interest can be pursued politically, by pushing Maliki to broaden his government.  Contrary to Senator John McCain, US-Iran cooperation on Iraq isn’t “the height of folly.”  But a US-Iran military partnership in response to the latest Iraq crisis would make matters worse and would not address the fundamental problems that beset Iraq today.  At the end of the day, a more cooperative US-Iran relationship would be welcome, but it would probably have little impact on Iraq’s prospects for staying whole—prospects that worsen by the day.

Recommended:  An excellent source for following US-Iran relations is Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.  You can get Trita’s commentaries via email at

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1 Comment

  1. It looks as if significant progress has already been reported on at least three of the major outstanding issues: Arak, Fordo and a gradual relaxation of sanctions. Some commentators have portrayed the demand to decrease the number of centrifuges as a possible (maybe even likely) deal-breaker. I am skeptical of that conclusion..

    For anyone interested, Peter Kenyon of NPR summarized two feasible alternatives to a ceiling on centrifuges that currently in circulation. See his June 16 blog post. . The two are variants of an “enrichment cap” approach. Other mechanisms for assuring limitations on nuclear fuel production without requiring Iran to formally sign off ]on a numerical ceiling may also be available.

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