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Talking is Good, But Hope For a US-Iran Detente is Premature

Hassan Rouhani

The change in tone and what is billed as a significant new proposal from Iran have led to a lot of optimism in the press lately. Are we near a resolution to this crisis at last?

Certainly we, like many others, hope that this dispute is on the road to a peaceful resolution. The US and Iran have quite a few common interests, and both sides could reasonably hope to gain more from a deal than either would hope to achieve in a war.

But the common interests have been evident since 1979, and the two countries haven’t been able to make much progress toward rebuilding a relationship in 34 years. The question is whether this time is different.

In Iran (as in Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea), opposition to the US is an important element in domestic politics that certain factions exploit to hold onto power. The obstacle is not just that the end of sanctions would reduce the hold of the Iranian authorities and radicals over the economy. If the US isn’t such a Great Satan after all, the domestic political mobilization and limits on dissent that were necessary to defend an embattled country against the enemy superpower lose their legitimacy.

The identity of the Iranian regime, and its legitimacy, are bound up in a sense of being a revolutionary power battling against an intolerable, evil enemy. For the ayatollahs to sit down in peace with Washington will feel to many of the regime’s most impassioned supporters like a betrayal of the revolution.

On the US side, the Obama administration has several problems that make it difficult to reach a deal. First, there’s the political problem that some of the sanctions that Iran most wants gone were imposed by congressional votes rather than by executive fiat. Repealing certain sanctions in Congress would require the House Republicans to go along and would also need to get 60 votes in the Senate to block a potential filibuster.

That may not be easy; a lot of people in the US remain deeply skeptical about Iran’s intentions. At the level of partisan politics, the GOP may be especially reluctant to hand Obama a victory at the moment.

The second big problem is allies. Israel will be wary of any deal with the Iranians on the nuke issue, and the Saudis don’t want to see the nuke issue resolved unless the broader problems of the Sunni-Shiite war (which the Saudis see in terms of Shia aggression and Iranian imperial ambitions) are also addressed. These problems would be tricky even if the underlying problem of the nuclear deal weren’t so thorny and hard to negotiate. But as an article in the NYT today points out, there are lots of problems with the nuclear negotiation itself.

We don’t venture to issue a prediction here; one of the Iranian government’s core competencies is an ability to mask its intentions. But we do see a big problem. From Iran’s standpoint, one of the strongest arguments for making a nuclear deal now is the opportunity to separate the nuclear issue from the Sunni-Shiite regional conflict. At the cost of giving up a nuclear weapon, Iran would gain the end of sanctions, but would not have to accept any limits on its support for Assad, Hezbollah and other allies around the region. In effect, the West would accept the creation of a “Shia crescent” in the Arab world stretching from Basra to Beirut, with Iran free to use its enlarged economic resources to pursue the struggle further.

If that’s the deal, the Saudis, the Israelis and the US Congress would be unwilling to take it. If that isn’t the deal, why would the Iranians take it?

The Obama administration may be willing to go along with the Iranians in separating the nuclear and the regional files; in a sense this is the deal the Iranians have wanted for some time. The US accepts a certain degree of Iranian primacy in the Middle East, and the Iranians stop short of a nuclear arsenal.

The Obama administration has not had a lot of fun in the Middle East and knows that the US public is leery of further engagement there. A nuclear deal billed as a diplomatic triumph combined with a further withdrawal from a Middle East that the Americans are heartily sick of could look attractive to the White House.

There’s a disquieting thought here, however. The Iranians may have chosen this moment for their diplomatic push precisely because they think there’s a chance that the Obama administration is so eager both to avoid a conflict with Iran and to reduce its profile in the Middle East that it will make large concessions and not ask too many tough questions. This is the kind of argument that might get Iranian hardliners to sign up for a diplomatic effort that they would otherwise oppose.

We are not claiming to read the Iranians’ minds. Getting to yes on a nuclear deal will be a very hard process for both the US and Iran.

It is still much too early to open the champagne.

[Hassan Rouhani photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It is long past time to put all Iranians “on foot and in the dark” by destroying their entire soft target energy industry. The uncivilized Iranians want to return to the way things were in the 7th century, and we should force them back there, by taking away the modern technology they had no hand in developing.

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