by Shireen T. Hunter
Tehran these days has been witnessing a lot of diplomatic visitors. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas just ended a visit to Iran and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be in Tehran in mid-June.
The visit of the German foreign minister was not a resounding success, to say the least. First, prior to coming to Tehran, he visited some Arab states, including Jordan and the UAE, demonstrating where Germany’s priorities were. Second, his tone during his talks, according to Iranian news outlets, was arrogant and hectoring. He indicated that, although Europe had failed to do anything to alleviate Iran’s economic hardships, Tehran should nevertheless continue to adhere to the nuclear deal. After warning Iran about the dangers of its current behavior, he seemed to indicate that, despite all the sanctions and pressures, Iran should be grateful that it is not at war like Syria and Yemen, as if Iran were responsible for starting both conflicts. Worse of all, he told his Iranian counterparts point blank that they cannot expect Europe to perform any miracles to save the nuclear deal.
The haughty tone of the German foreign minister played right into the hands of Iranian hardliners. Against all canons of hospitality for which Iranians are famous, they attacked the minister and likened him to the Nazis, an act that did not make the minister more sympathetic to Iran’s plight. All in all, the minister’s visit to Tehran might have done more harm than good, at least in terms of future German-Iranian relations.
The atmospherics of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tehran will likely be more positive. To begin with, since he hails from an ancient Asian culture that better understands the sensitivities of other peoples and cultures of the East, Abe will deliver his message, even if it’s harsh and uncompromising, with more delicacy and without offending his Iranian hosts. In contrast to the German minister, he is unlikely to come across as an imperial viceroy delivering an ultimatum to a subject people. Moreover, unlike Europe, which has basically reneged on its commitments under the nuclear deal, Japan has no responsibility for Tehran’s current predicament. Iranians are thus more likely to make some concessions to him as opposed to the Europeans.
However, more positive atmospherics would not be enough to make Abe’s visit a success. All depends on what kind of message he is bringing on behalf the United States. If he is supposed to merely transmit another ultimatum from President Trump, then his mission, too, is bound to fail. However, if he is carrying some kind of an olive branch in the form of an easing of sanctions on Tehran, then he might be able to reduce some tensions and even possibly start some form of US-Iran dialogue.
Over the past nearly 40 years, efforts at establishing a sustained dialogue between the United States and Iran have been stymied for various factors. First, both parties have been unwilling to appear to succumb to pressure and give up their principled positions. Some in America believe that Iran should not be allowed to challenge a superpower and get away with it. These groups have insisted that Iran, in deeds if not in words, admit defeat and surrender. In Iran, meanwhile, hardliners in particular have viewed concessions to America as a betrayal of the revolution. They, too, want to show that even a superpower of America’s standing has to admit defeat in the face of concerted resistance. That the fortunes of these hardliners are closely linked to this specific interpretation of U.S.-Iran relations has made compromise more difficult.
As long as this mentality persists on both sides, even King Solomon himself could not bring about a reconciliation. At this point, then, have the two sides reached a point where they see the dangers of the lack of compromise outweighing other concerns? If not, then a successful mediation remains unlikely.
Second, both Iran and America need a face-saving formula to extricate themselves from this dangerous situation. Both sides should be able to claim victory or at least admit to having made mutual compromises. If either side tries to declare itself the winner of the contest, any effort at mediation and dialogue would be stillborn. Iranian hardliners, in particular, should resist the urge to claim that their steadfastness forced America to compromise.
Third, linking a compromise with Iran at this early stage to the broader Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, would guarantee the failure of any negotiations. For example, making the sanction relief dependent on Iran openly giving up support for the Hezbollah would be a non-starter. Iran can in practice try to control some actions of Hezbollah against Israel, but it cannot appear to abandon its friends. The same is true regarding Persian Gulf Arab states. If, for example, the UAE insists on Iran giving up its sovereignty over the three Persian Gulf islands prior to a U.S.-Iran dialogue, then any effort at mediation would be doomed. In fact, America’s insistence over the past 30 years on a priori concessions from Iran has helped to perpetuate Iran’s more worrisome links in the region. In short, America’s regional allies should not be allowed to have a veto power over the conditions of a U.S.-Iran dialogue.
Fourth, given Iran’s past experience with talking to America (and Europe), there must be some guarantee that the United States will respect any new commitments.
If Abe goes to Tehran with proposals that at least partially correspond to these requirements and assure Iran that future agreements will be respected, then his chances of success will be moderate to good. But if he is bringing a list of demands that Iran has to accept or else, then his mission will fail, despite all of his cultural sophistication and sensitivity. The risk of military conflict by accident or design would increase in the wake of this diplomatic failure.