Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The United States and Iran: Misaligned

by Steven A. Cook
September 5, 2012

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Jalili attends news conference to conclude two days of talks between Iran and six world powers in Geneva (Valentin Flauraud/Courtesy Reuters).


I generally don’t write about Iran, and on the rare occasion that I do, I try my best to channel Ray Takeyh, Karim Sadjadpour, and Suzanne Maloney.  I’ll never come close to understanding Iran the way they do.  Still, I read enough that I have some insight and since Iran’s nuclear program, “zones of immunity,” and a potential Israeli strike are the hot topics of this past summer, I thought I would join the fray. Better late than never, I suppose.

Count me among the pessimists about the prospects for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.  I come to that conclusion not because I believe that the Iranians are irrational—I actually believe they are behaving rationally—or that the Israelis are trigger-happy (if they were, we would not be having a debate about a deal) or that Washington is betwixt and between and as a result of somehow letting Iran proliferate.  These arguments are what passes for analysis in these parts, but they are closer to ideological declarations of some sort or another.  Rather, I am struck by how quickly conversations between Americans and Iranians veer into polemics.  It is as if the two sides cannot help themselves from falling into a pattern of recrimination and accusation, which looks something like the following:

Step 1: Iranians invoke the 1953 coup d’etat that overthrew Mohamed Mossadegh; Americans listen politely, but actually cannot believe the Iranians are recalling an incident that dates back almost 60 years in a discussion about Tehran’s contemporary nuclear program.

Step 2: Iranians argue that their possession of a nuclear program is the result of the West’s misguided support for the Shah who began Iran’s nuclear program; Americans start getting a bit agitated, thinking “Add this to the list of what is our fault,” but can’t help thinking the Iranians might have a point.

Step 3: Iranians take the previous argument one step further, indicating that continued enrichment to 20 percent is the fault of the West because it will not accept Iranian proposals to enrich uranium at all.  Americans are now barely holding it together at the gall of their Iranian interlocutors for their obvious deceit and wonder if anyone believes the Iranians when they absolve themselves of responsibility for their own nuclear program.

Step 4: The Americans express their support for better relations between the United States and Iran, but then blame Tehran for virtually every problem in the Middle East.  There are, of course, some American analysts who go out of their way to see things from the Iranian perspective, which is admirable, but this tends to reinforce the Iranian narrative of Washington’s history of perfidy and predatory policies.

No doubt much of this is posturing in an environment where the stakes are low—all the conversations to which I have been privy are among non-official Americans and Iranians.  One hopes that the periodic P-5+1 negotiations are far more serious, but the depth of mistrust between the sides is so great that I don’t see how they can get anywhere. Indeed under these circumstances, reasonable sounding proposals are invariably seen as traps.  For example, I am told that during George W. Bush’s presidency the Iranians wanted to negotiate “about everything.”  The Bush people were open to talks on the sole condition that Tehran suspend uranium enrichment during the talks.  The Iranians balked, fearing that Washington would drag out negotiations over many years effectively bringing their uranium enrichment to a permanent standstill and robbing Iran of its only leverage with the United States and the West.

How about the Tehran Research Reactor deal?  This was an accord between the Brazilians, Iranians, and Turks that would have required Tehran to ship 1,200 kilograms of low enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium for medical uses. According to the Turks, they had Washington’s blessing and a letter from the Obama administration to prove it.  Yet the United States scuttled the deal believing the Iranians would never uphold it.  Not an unreasonable concern given Iran’s history of obfuscation, but how do you expect to get a future deal when you had a deal and then turned around and abandoned it?  No doubt the Iranians look at the TRR episode as yet another example of American treachery.

Finally, it strikes me that you cannot get an agreement with the Iranians because at the most basic level, there is no starting point for an agreement.  Washington’s demands that Iran transfer the uranium it has already enriched to 20 percent, close the Fardow enrichment facility, and cease enriching to 20 percent before negotiating the disposition of Iran’s nuclear program in its entirety not only conflict with Iran’s belief that it has a right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but with the ontology of the clerical regime.  As I wrote at two years ago:

The Islamic Republic was founded in many ways on opposition to the West, and in particular, the United States. A good portion of Iran’s revolutionary narrative identifies the United States’ perfidy in undermining the aspirations and identity of the Iranian people. The litany of Tehran’s complaints against Washington is long. This is precisely why the Iranian leadership cannot make a deal with the United States. To do so would undermine the reason for the revolution and the Iranian leadership’s own reason for being.

As Karim Sadjadpour has often insightfully pointed out, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposes accommodation with the West because he is worried what it might do to the Islamic Republic.  In Ayatollah Khamenei’s view, accommodation with the United States leads to additional compromise that can only undermine the revolution and the integrity of the clerical regime.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to believe that Washington and Tehran can agree on much of anything, let alone the parameters of Iran’s nuclear development. This is not an argument for war, which is ill-advised given the technical constraints and the likely fall-out, but hopes for a diplomatic solution seem misplaced because the United States and Iran are so fundamentally misaligned.



Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Adam of Israel

    Really well summarizes the impasse. But that does however make the article an argument for military action by default (as no other option seems realistic). Strange how that is brushed under the carpet at the end.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Let me try to follow the logic.

    It is Iranians/Ayatollahs who don’t want a deal so what can US do. Iranians just give too much importance to what happened in the past.

    Oh, yes, the Tehran Research Reactor was a deal alright but US rejected it because they cannot trust Iranians.

    How can you expect US to trust these Iranians after what they have done in the past.

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