The Challenge of U.S – Iranian Negotiations

By Jim Matlack

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

For most Americans the basis of U.S.-Iranian relations lies in events that took place exactly forty-four years ago—the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and the long imprisonment of U.S. diplomats. This episode bred persistent distrust and enmity. Most Iranians see the relationship between the two governments filtered through their resentment over events in 1953 when the United States led the overthrow of a popularly elected President Mohammed Mosaddegh and the restoration of the Shah to power. The Shah was toppled in 1979 by revolutionary forces that created the current Islamic-led Iranian regime.

With such deep mutual suspicions in which each side focuses upon its respective grievance, any progress toward diplomatic agreement is a steep uphill climb. (The asymmetry is similar to but more entrenched than the relationship in which Americans remember Pearl Harbor while Japanese remember the two atomic bombs dropped on them.)

American diplomatic relations with Iran in recent decades have been marked by hardline positions reflecting the macho and punitive views of public and Congressional opinion. When Iranian moderate Mohammad Khatami was President, he urged “a dialogue among civilizations” and advanced a plan for negotiations with the U.S. Then President George Bush II (along with Cheney and Rumsfeld) not only scorned the overture and left it unanswered. They actually rebuked the Swiss for conveying the Iranian message to the U.S. government.

After Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld staged the invasion of Afghanistan, they promoted a further invasion of Iraq with phony intelligence and scare tactics. In the Bush Administration’s triumphalist mood critics were unpatriotic and “reality-based” commentators were pitied since bold U.S. action would “re-make” reality. The slogan of the day was: “Baghdad will fall; real men will then push on to take Teheran.” President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech cut off some promising areas of U.S.-Iranian cooperation and confirmed U.S. demonization of Iranian leaders.

Little wonder that Iranians are skeptical of U.S. intentions. Enough Right-Wing bluster continues in D.C. to persuade Iranian leadership that the U.S. goal is and has always been regime change. Ratcheting up economic sanctions on Iran—as is again before the Congress—assures continuation of the mutual hostility and escalation of tensions.

Yet the Iranian government under newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani now seems to be open to genuine negotiations with the U.S. on core issues including the Iranian nuclear programs. The U.S. government must not miss this opening for serious talks to resolve critical issues (as it did under President Bush). Iranian willingness to meet may have been induced by economic damage from the sanctions but the U.S. response should be whole-hearted negotiations, not stiffer sanctions.

War-like belligerence will surely bring on actual war if relentlessly pursued. By contrast, there now seems a distant but tangible prospect of curbing Iran’s most dangerous behaviors and bringing it back into the community of nations as a responsible participant, a prospect too precious to squander.

The highest priority for the United States and Western allies is to contain Iranian nuclear programs short of weaponization. Without pressing the comparison too far, the world is witnessing successful diplomatic resolution of concern over Syrian chemical weapons without a U.S. missile attack. All the macho mockery of President Obama is totally discredited by the actual destruction of Syrian facilities for production of chemical weapons despite a raging civil war. This lesson should be followed in taking up Iranian readiness to negotiate over their nuclear programs and other issues.

The consensus view among U.S. intelligence experts is that Iran not only has not weaponized its nuclear programs but that it has not yet even decided to do so. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khaminei has declared that the “production, stockpiling, and use” of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islamic law. Despite this public prohibition, a decision to weaponize would likely be taken if the Iranian regime felt a heightened threat of attack or an imminent attempt at regime change. Thus a harsh, negative U.S. response to Rouhani’s offer to talk would accelerate the very outcome that we most seek to avoid.

The U.S. should commit fully to the P5+1 talks with Iran but expect that the crunch time for resolving difficult issues will be achieved in bi-lateral U.S.-Iranian meetings away from public scrutiny. The U.S. should not insist upon pre-condition steps by Iran but seek the broadest framework of mutual moves to meet the interests of both sides in the negotiation.

A cautious but diligent effort is called for as the U.S. tests the public disavowal of nuclear weapons by Iranian leaders. Any accord will require full and continuous monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities to assure that no “break-out” toward weaponization can be attempted. The overall sanctions system cannot be lifted until Iran has demonstrated compliance with whatever terms are mutually agreed upon. The goal should be Iran freed from sanctions in return for unambiguous verification that Iran will never possess a nuclear weapon.

Hardline and implacable factions on both sides will oppose any diplomatic agreement between Iran and the United States. The current U.S. Congress is hardly a more constructive player than the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran. Yet the stakes are so high and the chance of success so positive that the utmost diplomatic effort should be made toward reaching agreement. A full accord could remove the threat either of Iranian nuclear weapons or of a direct attack to prevent them which could in turn spiral into vast violence across the region. There are no guarantees as to the outcome but a clear possibility now exists that Iran’s belligerent stances can be softened, its isolation ended, and its internal economic and social processes allowed to move forward to benefit its people.

Clearly Quaker voices should be raised to encourage vigorous and constructive U.S. engagement in talks with Iranian diplomats. No other potential conflict around the globe has a higher priority that “preventive” steps be taken. Messages and delegations should be sent to Congress and the White House urging that support be given to U.S. efforts to resolve tensions with Iran through peaceful means. Remember that even Winston Churchill, who led British participation in the 1953 overthrow of an elected Iranian government, said that “Jaw, Jaw” was always preferable to “War, War.”

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