Although the Iran nuclear talks are officially between Iran and the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany, at the core, this tug-of-war is between Iran and the United States. I can even picture the US and Iranian diplomats, alone, behind closed doors, working on drafts of the final document.
The signs and posturing from all sides indicate that the US and Iran are serious, genuine and committed to reaching an agreement. The negotiations are being conducted quietly, and between rounds, the sides are displaying restraint and expressing cautious optimism. When the US, for domestic reasons, refused a visa to Iran’s UN representative, Iran’s response was measured. In the recent UN vote condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Iran did not come in on Russia’s side, as it usually does. All this points to a very real opportunity for a positive outcome by the July deadline they have set for themselves.
How is it that what was unthinkable only a year ago suddenly seems plausible?
Just as the buck stops with President Barack Obama in US foreign policy decision-making, the final decision in Iran rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, both Obama’s and Khamenei’s decisions and actions are shaped by a complex interaction of personal worldviews, historical factors, diplomatic and cultural traditions and a set of rational, bureaucratic and elite decision-making processes.
Both Obama’s and Khamenei’s decisions and actions are shaped by a complex interaction of personal worldviews, historical factors, diplomatic and cultural traditions and a set of rational, bureaucratic and elite decision-making processes.
Let me start with Iran. Iranians have a sense of seniority, if not preeminence, born of a rich and ancient culture that has evolved and survived into modern times. But they also have a historically ingrained sense of insecurity, owing to frequent conquest and domination. This is not just an ancient memory.
Mentality of siege
This mentality of siege has been aggravated recently by the presence of US troops to their west in Iraq and to their east in Afghanistan. Their contemporary outlook is the product of these two worldviews – suspicious of others’ motives while proud of their own skills as savvy, tough negotiators and not without their own resources.
This dichotomy has forced Iranians throughout their history to try to punch above their weight and to practice brinkmanship – pushing dangerous events to the edge of disaster in order to achieve the best outcome.
This approach is common to countries with similar contradictory worldviews, particularly when threatened by a formidable adversary. This is why Iranian responses, which seem to others to be self-righteous and irrational, are in fact, for them, necessary and acceptable.
Yet, the negotiating countries seem to have come to understand what Iran really wants – and the challenge is in finding ways to accommodate it without jeopardising anyone’s security.
Given the hostility between Israel and Iran, two such nuclear powers facing off against each other would pose, to say the least, a threat. For many, a nuclear-armed Iran would change the region’s – if not the world’s – security environment. Thus, Iran’s insistence on its right to develop nuclear capacity appears irrational.
Iran’s industrial aims
Iran has consistently said that it wants to develop uranium enrichment technology for industrial use. Everyone agrees that Iran has the right to do so. The Iranians have also said that they will continue to honour their commitments and open their doors to observation as members of the non-proliferation community.
Although some argue Iran is being disingenuous, that once it achieves this first phase it can easily slide into weapons-grade enrichment, still, the international community must be more respectful of Iran’s current industrial aims if it wants Iranian cooperation.
Fortunately, and especially after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, there are voices in the US and elsewhere that advocate engaging Iran at the highest level. This is the beginning of an essential process that will bring Iran out of a siege mentality, ready to negotiate the issue at hand, and not perceived threats.
Iran appears ready. The international sanctions had begun to bite and cause havoc to Iran’s economy. Furthermore, given the absence of engagement and contacts, the likelihood of a surprise military attack on Iran had grown. Thus Iran determined it was time to quit practicing brinkmanship and instead strike a trade-off to secure its right to peaceful nuclear energy, albeit under strict supervision.
View from the other side
As for those on the other side of the negotiating table, US diplomacy is well prepared to respond to and accommodate brinkmanship. After all, they have been at the receiving end of this diplomatic technique during the entire Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is the quintessential manifestation of brinkmanship employed by the Soviets and the US’ successful response to it, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pushed the world to the edge of nuclear war and then retreated at the right moment after securing the removal of US missiles from Turkey.
Also, Americans look at the world, in whole or in parts, from the perspective of a balance of power and their role in securing it. In the dispute with Iran, the absence of engagement and contact fed the persistent danger of inadvertent involvement in war as a result of Israeli air strikes and bombing of Iranian nuclear installations and the latter’s assured response to those attacks.
Secondly, as the US is out of Iraq and soon will be out of Afghanistan, it became necessary to engage Iran in a way that would minimise the chances of the collapse of everything that was attempted, at such great cost, in those two countries, both bordering Iran.
Thirdly, as differences between the US and Saudi Arabia surface, as tensions between the US and Russia grow, and as Europe seeks ways to decrease dependence on Russia’s energy resources, Iran’s role as a balancing power becomes necessary.
We have reached a point on the Iran nuclear issue that it doesn’t really matter whether Iran had or still has intentions to develop a nuclear weapon. What the US and the international community need to do is to borrow a page out of the Ronald Reagan notebook and apply the “trust but verify” dictate.
The West’s judgement about Iran’s motives and actions should not be distorted by Iranian pride. We can only understand Iran’s real intentions by engaging Iranians – not cornering them.
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.