Apr. 25, 2014 by Darius
Earlier this week, I saw Dr. Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council and formerly of the US State Department, speak about “Iran Nuclear Negotiations: The Road Forward.” Dr. Marashi’s remarks covered quite a bit of US-Iranian relations.
- According to Dr. Marashi, there have been two main goals of US foreign policy for decades: protecting US interests abroad and promoting US values. Almost without fail, and especially in the Middle East, when the two have conflicted, the US has chosen its interests over its professed values.
- To Dr. Marashi, the Iranian nuclear program is “the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room” when it comes to US-Iran issues. Resolve it and both sides will have the space to tackle other outstanding issues.
- The change in tone from the new Iranian regime of President Hassan Rouhani was vital for diplomacy to succeed. For the past several years, both the US and Iran were only “negotiating” because they didn’t want to be seen by the international community as the intransigent party. But the tone of Iranian rhetoric has changed substantially since Rouhani’s election, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has stated publicly and on multiple occasions that he wants to see negotiations succeed.
- In 2003, President Rouhani was a member of an Iranian diplomatic team negotiating with three European countries over Iran’s nuclear program. The Europeans felt Rouhani was someone they could work with, and they did: the Europeans and Iranians actually reached an agreement in 2003. Who nixed it? The Bush administration. Ironically, the terms Iran was prepared to offer in 2003 were far more generous than those being considered now. In 2003, Iran was willing to accept a cap on the number of centrifuges it could have at anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand, depending on other specifics. Today, Iran has an estimated 19,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Additionally, in 2003, Iran had two nuclear facilities. Today, it has many more and will not be closing them even if a deal is reached.
- Dr. Marashi felt Iran had two big incentives to reach a deal separate from sanctions relief. First, US officials have privately – not publicly – communicated that the US would be willing to tacitly accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its soil, which represents a major shift from previous US policy. (This is a rhetorical shift, but it is not exactly giving away the farm because every country that signs the UN’s Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Iran has, has the right to enrich uranium on its own soil as long as the goal is not weapons production.) Second, the current Iranian government, led by pragmatists rather than hardliners, has staked its very political survival on a nuclear deal.
- Dr. Marashi also noted the rather brilliant strategic decision by President Obama to build Congressional support for diplomacy. The text of the interim deal signed several months ago is classified. That means that members of Congress can review it for themselves but cannot reveal its contents publicly. It also means that the press does not know the exact details and therefore can’t bash members of Congress over their support. Obama needs this support to get Congress to eventually repeal sanctions as part of a comprehensive deal.
- If negotiations fail, Iran is determined not to be the reason they fail. After all, if Iran is seen by the international community as the intransigent party, sanctions will remain in place. If the US is seen as the intransigent party, Europe’s support for sanctions will begin to crumble.
- Although negotiations are between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, other countries have basically said that if whatever is decided is acceptable to the US, it will be acceptable to them as well. Even Russia, despite current tensions with the West over Ukraine, has good reasons to not be a poison pill in the talks. After all, Russia does not want another nuclear power in its immediate neighborhood, and Russia really doesn’t want another US-led war in the Middle East, which could be a consequence of a breakdown of diplomacy.
- As far as Israel goes, Dr. Marashi said that there is a debate in Israel over diplomacy with Iran. While the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu talks about how Iran is an existential threat and cannot be reasoned with, a more pragmatic group in Israel believes that Israel should, in essence, shut up publicly. Instead, Israel has been communicating its concerns to the US privately so the world does not see Israel as an obstacle to a potential breakthrough. In addition to the end of Iran’s weapons program, Israel wants Iran to dial back its criticism of Israel to “just” the Palestinian issue.
In conclusion, Dr. Marashi felt that a historic breakthrough is possible. But even in the wake of a complete nuclear agreement, Iran has no interest at the present time in becoming friends with the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia shouldn’t worry about their special relationships with the US. Instead, Iran wants a relationship with the US similar to that of Russia or China: rivals, not to be dictated to but capable of cooperation where it benefits both parties. Such an arrangement would go a very long way to decreasing tensions across the whole region.