Why the US-Iran talks will succeed

Washington is moving towards a working relationship with Iran that promises to pay dividends for both parties.

Iran Nuclear Talks In Vienna
An agreement will open the door to Iran's reintegration into a US-dominated international economic system, writes Aronson [Getty]

The talks between Iran and the P5+1 are nearing their end.

Like the question of Greece’s membership in the Eurozone, fundamental decisions are fast approaching. Sooner rather than later, US President Barack Obama and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will face the burden of decision.

Agreement is the most likely outcome, one that will open the door to Iran’s incremental reintegration into a US-dominated international economic and security system. The unlikely collapse of negotiations promises growing instability in a region that is already beyond coping and a probable descent into a major war.

For these reasons alone, the smart money is on a deal. How is it that the Obama foreign policy team which has failed so spectacularly in every other corner of the Middle East, lending a hand to the destruction of the old order and souring relations with friend and foe alike, has managed to organise a successful diplomatic re-engagement with its foremost antagonist in the region, and excepting North Korea, the entire world?

Iran nuclear programme: Deal or no deal?

What distinguishes the effort with Iran from those that Washington promoted – with such disastrous results – in Libya, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria?

Valerie Jarrett’s valuable perspective 

Valerie Jarrett is an instructive place to start. The president’s storied senior adviser is most often associated with Obama’s domestic policy and politics. But Jarrett brings to the negotiations a perspective on Iran which is unprecedented for a top White House aide with intimate access to the president.

Her father James Bowman was a renowned pathologist and geneticist. Early in his career, he left the United States to become the chairman of pathology at Nemazee Hospital in Shiraz. Valerie was born in 1956 in Shiraz and she spent her early years speaking Persian and French.

Her father’s decision to move to Iran after his discharge from US military service offers a remarkable insight into the destructive pervasiveness of race in American life.

Once it found its voice on the issue, the Obama administration has shown unusual commitment to its diplomatic engagement with Iran, despite extraordinary Israeli opposition.


“My wife and I decided that we were not going to go back to anything that smacked of segregation,” he recalled. “We were recently married, so we took a chance,” he said. “It changed our lives completely.”

Jarrett’s parents saw Iran as a tolerant and welcoming refuge from the racial bigotry of 1950s America. At the very least this experience provided Jarrett a personal foundation for an alternative narrative to Washington’s popular demonisation of Iran, which reached its pinnacle with George W. Bush’s description of the country as a charter member of “the axis of evil”.

The Washington-Tehran relationship

Now as in her role as the president’s trusted counsellor, Jarrett is at the heart of Obama’s effort to refashion Washington’s relationship with Iran. Her early years in Iran, and similar personal experiences no doubt help the effort, but they alone cannot explain Washington’s methodological construction of a new relationship with Tehran.

What are the other attributes that distinguish the Iran talks?

First and foremost, Washington and Tehran share in interest in building a new system of relations. This partnership distinguishes the dialogue from Washington’s other efforts in the region and establishes a solid foundation on which to engage diplomatically – providing the basis for a continuing series of diplomatic achievements from the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action onwards.

Such a shared interest has escaped the Obama administration elsewhere in the region – from Yemen to Libya and Syria. In each of these bloody arenas, the core of administration policy has been focused on destroying not building – regime change through military intervention rather than positive engagement through diplomacy.

Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett [Getty]
Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett [Getty]

With Tehran, Washington is facing a strong regional power with whom, after decades of estrangement, it is now engaged in building a “New Middle East”. This is an exercise of strategic impact, and it already has begun to shape the distribution of power throughout the region.

Strategic and economic dividends 

Washington is gravitating towards a working relationship with Iran that promises to pay dividends – strategic and economic for both parties. The diplomatic process may well be frustrating, but it is nonetheless an exciting and forward-looking process. 

The contrast with the Arab states in the region, and to a certain extent even Israel, is stark. The Arabs have never been weaker, nor has their star in Washington’s firmament ever been weaker. In recent decades, more than one Arab capital has been occupied by foreigners of all stripes. Today, many more are under threat from a variety of forces, including those supported by Washington.

The defining element of this Arab generation is loss of the sovereign ability to make decisions won at such tremendous cost in the post-colonial era.


The defining element of this Arab generation is loss of the sovereign ability to make decisions won at such tremendous cost in the post-colonial era.

Indeed it could be argued that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may be the only absolutely sovereign Arab entity, at war with almost everyone but answerable to no one – and that joint Arab efforts – from the monitoring efforts in Damascus at the outset of the war to the current campaign in Yemen – have become exercises in the formalisation of weakness.

These unattractive attributes place even relatively strong and cohesive nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt at a strategic regional disadvantage in American eyes. Obama was not the first US president to lose faith in the stabilising power of Arab regimes.

A more stable future

Bush’s secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared this openly when she stated that: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy … and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspiration of all people.”

As for the rest of the Arabs – from Libya to Yemen, Palestine, Syria and even Iraq – when Washington is not engaged in a revolutionary effort to destroy the status quo, the challenge is to prevent things from getting worse rather than to build a more stable future.

Israel too, despite its strategic relationship with Washington – borne of domestic politics and longstanding shared regional interests – finds itself in the unusual and uncomfortable position of watching the American-Iranian caravan pass it by.

Once it found its voice on the issue, the Obama administration has shown unusual commitment to its diplomatic engagement with Iran, despite extraordinary Israeli opposition.  

In this round of negotiations with Iran, Washington is dealing with a functioning political and security system that has demonstrated a commitment to the diplomatic process and is also seen as capable of making far-reaching decisions. None of its Arab adversaries, and far too few of its friends in the region, can make a similar claim.

These defining elements of the budding relationship between Iran and the US do not guarantee a successful outcome. However, they do create the opportunity to establish historic dimensions for both countries that promise, not only to pay broad dividends for success, but also have the potential to exact a heavy price for failure.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.