international analysis and commentary

US and Iran: Why a “Grand Bargain” will be so hard to achieve

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With dueling speeches of good will and hints of breakthroughs, Washington and Tehran now seem to be truly embarked on a path of negotiations, highlighted in particular by the elevation of the anticipated discussions to the level of foreign ministers. The framework of the talks is technically multilateral – in the form of the P5+1 countries, i.e. the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – but it is clear to all that the key to this new phase is the US-Iran dimension. In this context, the talks’ newly enhanced status evidently demonstrates a higher commitment for success, but also warns of a higher cost for failure. It is thus with relief and welcome that the pro-diplomacy camp in Washington, in and out of the Obama administration, is assessing the statements of the US and Iranian presidents at the 2013 United Nations General Assembly. Whether the new language is grounds for optimism, however, is an open question.

The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been locked for more than a decade in a stable equilibrium of impending conflict. The desire to break out of this vexing situation, whether in the direction of a military resolution or a peaceful entente, has failed to materialize, as a result of balancing factors that either dilute the will to war – when present – by offering seemingly plausible diplomatic alternatives, or dissipate the hopes for a peaceful resolution, by highlighting the unresolvable aspects of the discord.

At face value, the problem is Iran’s alleged hidden program to develop nuclear weapons. The deeper core of the issue, from a Washington perspective, remains the problematic character of the Islamic Republic, which, since its revolutionary beginnings, has honed its conventional state structures and institutions while preserving a radical and decisively anti-US rhetorical stance. As a state, for Iran to seek nuclear power would have been cause for expected attention and concern; but as a revolutionary regime, engaged in supporting insurgents and rogue regimes, Tehran’s accession to nuclear power status is evidently cause for alarm. And if it is so for distant Washington and European capitals, it is by an order of magnitude more for Israel, the object of a continuous aggressive verbal stream flowing from Iran, and the shooting target of much of its client base in the Near East. The fears stemming from a nuclear-armed Iran are threefold. The first, admittedly a remote possibility but with unacceptably high stakes, is that the weapons would be used, accidentally or deliberately against the backdrop of internal or regional upheaval, hence resulting in incalculable consequences. A more tangible negative result would be the emboldening of the radical side of Iran, and of its regional clients, in their challenges to the interests of the West and allied governments in the region. Last, but not least, would be the psychological effect on the social and economic stability of Israel, from a nuclear and radical Iran committed to a vision for the region based on its elimination.

Washington, even if the administration is seeking a (partial) strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, cannot thus afford to condone a nuclear Iran – neither one brandishing its weapons publicly, nor one opting for an Israeli-style nuclear ambiguity. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, the US government remained steadfast in its vocal rejection of the prospect of a nuclear Iran. It also remained at a loss in identifying the means for the realization of this declared aim: negotiations, sanctions, covert disruptive actions and open warfare have been named as potential means towards the still elusive purpose of dissuading Iran from engaging in a clandestine nuclear program. But, in light of possible consequences neither President Bush nor Obama have been able to translate the option of military force into a credible threat that forces Iran to capitulate.

Tehran, on the other hand, has maintained the consistent line that the aims of its nuclear program are peaceful, that it is prohibited by its religious standards from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and that any lack of cooperation that it exhibits is a natural reaction to the almost blatant attempts by its enemies to subvert inspections and use them for illicit purposes.

The US initial baseline position was to offer Iran an implicit balancing formula: while the militarization of nuclear power remains an absolute taboo, the acceptance of Iranian forays into (civilian) nuclear energy would be a function of the normalization of the behavior of Iran as a responsible member of the global community. The more Tehran is willing and able to rid itself of its radical tendencies, the more accepting would the international order be of its experimentation and exploitation of nuclear energy for civilian purposes. This formula, however, is in stark opposition to another, adopted by the Iranian leadership to expand its regional influence: with the waning of Arab nationalist and leftist discourses aimed at the West for its support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, Iran has stepped in to fill the void as the champion of the “resistance” camp. Assessments of this strategic stance vary from viewing it as a pragmatic action designed to expand Iran’s sphere of influence (which it conclusively did), to an unavoidable and lasting consequence of the Islamic Republic’s ideological pedigree. Either way, Iran’s regional reach and outreach is firmly based on its radical positions. Whether Tehran voluntarily nurtures its anti-US and anti-Israel narratives or is inexorably trapped in them, the investment of which these narratives are part – and which includes the incubation of Hezbollah as a forward position for the Islamic Republic, as well as assets in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere – cannot be converted away from belligerence towards Israel. Furthermore, the international community has little to offer Tehran that would compensate for the loss resulting from abandoning its decades-long investment in regional radicalism – were it to choose a course of behavior normalization. The proposition of potential regional economic primacy, gradually emerging from economic easing, trade, and investment seem indeed a meager substitute for the current satisfaction, often vocally displayed by leading figures of the Islamic Republic, with the level of hegemony achieved through its clients in the region.

Over the past decade, Iran may not have been able to fulfill its nuclear ambitions, but it has succeeded in preserving the stalemate that may provide it with the opportunity to reach its goals. The Western coalition, on the other hand, has succeeded in elevating the cost of non-compliance, through a sanctions regime that has had a visible negative impact on the Iranian economy and on Iranians’ welfare. The net effect of the sanctions on the relative strength of the regime, internally and regionally, is yet to be ascertained, but the repeated calls from Tehran for a resolution of the standoff have convinced many in Washington that an approach based on sanctions and negotiations may finally have dislodged the Iranian conviction of the continuation of the status quo being in its favor.

The time, according to such a reading, is thus ripe for a grand bargain with Iran, thawing away decades of antagonism, and ushering the Islamic Republic into more conventional behavior. The terms of the grand bargain, from a US perspective, revert back to the initial baseline formula: Iran will abandon military nuclear ambitions, will end its bellicose rhetoric and its support for terrorist groups, in exchange for a gradual easing of the sanctions, a recognition of its sovereign right for peaceful nuclear power and its legitimate interests in the region, and the rehabilitation of its regime in the community of nations. Iran, the argument goes, may fulfill its economic potential as the region’s most important power. It may be difficult to imagine a more generous offer coming from Washington.

Yet, the definition of a “grand bargain” in Tehran may differ considerably. There, the “grand bargain” cannot be short of a recognition of Iran’s right of patronage over large swaths of the Middle East (from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf), as well as the immediate lifting of the sanctions regime, with issues such as the support for organizations designated terrorist by the West reformulated on the basis of a distinction between terrorism and legitimate resistance to occupation. It may be difficult to conceive of a less demanding counter-offer from Tehran. The promise of energized economic growth and investments leading to the realization of presumed Iranian economic regional supremacy—one that would entail a new configuration of the regime’s power structure, is viewed with suspicion by both clerical and para-military circles concerned that such re-arrangement may be at the expense of their own power positions.

President Obama and President Rouhani may share the desire of overseeing sincere negotiations that lead to a resolution. Each, however, presides over a political order that has a different view of the nature of the problem, and is thus driven to expectations that may not even be a subject of consideration of the other. President Rouhani, the extent of whose “moderation” – as understood in the West, is yet to be established, is also burdened with serious limits on his capacity and ability to compromise. Actual progress, beyond the ephemeral good will that strikingly diverging visions and interests are likely to eventually dissipate, will be hard to emerge. The coming talks may be little more than an exercise in circular diplomacy, but they may still provide both parties with tangible outcomes. The Obama administration may use the span of time accorded by its crisis management towards a containment approach to diffuse pressures and consider further options.

In Tehran, the calculus may be more complex. An asymmetrical competition is underway between a conservative establishment with a firm grip on power structures (but concerned with a deteriorating economy and mounting public discontent), and a reformist current seeking a redesign of Iran’s approach to both domestic and international questions. The election of Rouhani may have been a demonstration of reformist popular support, but it also offers conservative and radical elements within the regime some reprieve against both internal and external pressures. While diverging in their assessment of means, conservatives and reformists share the urgency of halting Iran’s economic decline, and avoiding a catastrophic conflict that may destroy it. Rouhani’s openness to negotiations with the West secures this shared goal, even though for a limited time. In a race against the reassertion of conservative power, and the potential discrediting of his approach, Rouhani may hope that negotiations, even by the promise of a potential long-term success, would widen the appeal of reformist ideas in soft conservative circles in the establishment. Harder conservatives, and radicals, in Tehran are confident that the odds are not in his favor.