Engage Iran Beyond the Nuclear Issue

by Charles Naas

The slog to a possible historic agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia plus Germany) has concluded for now in Vienna and will reconvene there on March 17. The major problems facing the participants are by now well-known. We can accordingly expect both sides to at first deliver their basic positions and any subsequent movement to be laid out in bilateral discussions to assess reactions before anything is made public and formal.

Missing so far from all this is any firm indication of what middle and long-term aims Washington holds. The negotiators and supporting staff at State and the White House have, quite miraculously, maintained considerable discipline and not leaked information. Although the latest round in Vienna ended on a positive note, the administration continues to warn that success in the talks is by no means a sure thing. This somberness may be traditional and wise negotiating tactics but there is little basis for optimism at this point.

When the US finally joined the Europeans in their effort to control Iran’s nuclear program in 2006, its motivations were not at all clear. Obviously the secret talks in Oman (2011-12) and at the UN in 2013 supported the notion that indeed it might be worth our while to test the negotiating waters with Iran more intensely. In time, other secret exchanges will probably be revealed. However, looking ahead, did we enter the talks primarily and largely out of non-proliferation concerns? Were Israeli threats of destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and the real possibility of our being dragged into another crisis or war the principal motivations? At the time, President Barack Obama had indicated he recognized that the American population had no heart for further conflict in the Middle East and was attempting to severely reduce our forces and our aims in Afghanistan.

For a President now well into his second term and facing a Congress in which his own party does not fully support him and a House of Representatives that opposes all his actions, any initiative concerning the Middle East, particularly involving Iran, seems ambitious. He could just let the matters drift and wait until 2016 and go back home to Chicago. But doing so or even just restricting our aims with Iran to the nuclear issue, as important and difficult as it is, is too limiting when the scope of other regional challenges are taken into account.

Iran and Turkey are the largest and — along with Israel — the strongest and most influential nations in the area. Politically, Israel has for some time had an informal semi-alliance relationship with the Arab monarchies — Egypt, Syria and Libya — which were/are torn by currently unsolvable violence. Turkey has meanwhile reduced its ties with Israel, has been forced to limit its hopes of becoming accepted as part of Europe and has been forced to secure its borders with Syria and take care of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Iran has been a missing part of the calculus for us, except for its opposition to our efforts to get through this lengthy period of regional instability in the Middle East. Our relations with Iran historically have gone through the ouster of its Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, which we orchestrated; an allied relationship — CENTO and the 1959 bilateral treaty –; the sale of enormous quantities of modern arms in return for very significant aid in the Cold War (ties that became too close to be maintained); and three decades of no official relations brought on by the turmoil of its 1979 revolution. We have experienced the highs and the lows during this time. Have we learned much?

No matter from what direction one views the Middle East, Iran is presently very important. It is a player in the Persian Gulf and in a dominant military position; it is heavily engaged in the Syrian conflict; its influence with Hezbollah and Lebanon is significant; and it’s as concerned as we are over the revival of the Taliban and Sunni Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Has the administration explored the more obvious areas of mutual interest it shares with Iran, such as security and stability in Afghanistan? Are we looking at ways our ties with Israel do not dominate our Mideast policies and are there ways that Iranian-Israeli hostility can be modified? Little things like President Hassan Rouhani’s public Rosh Hashanah greeting last year and the fact that Iran and Israel stayed in their seats at recent conferences while the other talked may have a larger meaning. The Iranians are sophisticated enough to know that Israeli worries are a major factor within Congress and the general public. For its part, the Iranian government — at least the element to which Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif belong — has indicated that it perceives the solution to the nuclear issues as the opening act of a new relationship. That position, which Zarif has held for number of years, could be an artful “come-on” in an effort to get concessions in the nuclear agreement. But I think not. The sanctions are hurting and Iran is in a period where pragmatic objectives are taking a slim lead over ideology.

Much of this might appear to be useless speculation but it’s all part and parcel of what will take place in Vienna. Either side may be influenced in the nuclear discussions by future hopes. The optimists are already prematurely suggesting opening an Interests Section –one step below an Embassy– to manage our affairs in Tehran. We are approaching a crucial point that will determine whether a strong Iran can become moderate and helpful in addressing the serious matters now blazing from the Mediterranean to the Indus River. Following a failure to get to a nuclear agreement and move on to other matters, it would be difficult to pick up the pieces. That’s why it’s important to begin talking with Iran about areas of mutual interest now.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.



  1. Excellent article and excellent points. I hope the policy makers in the Administration and the legislators in Congress have read this and will follow through. One additional potential area of cooperation is the UNESCO sponsored SESAME particle accelerator project that had been planned for some years to be located in Amman, Jordan and scheduled to open 2015. I believe, the project was originally contemplated as a catalyst for technological research, and I speculate that would be expanded to provide wider technological training and also an incubator for technology businesses in the the region, Both Israel and Iran, as well as Jordan and Turkey were charter members.

  2. Many thanks for this useful history lesson and looking beyond the immediate first step. Sadly, from 2003-2006 when Iran was sending many positive signals to the United States and reached a nuclear agreement with the European Troika (Great Britain, France and Germany) the Bush Administration ensured the failure of those overtures by dreaming of invading Iran and toppling the Iranian regime. President Obama’s extended hand to Iran coincided with President Ahmadinejad’s right-wing government. The election of President Rouhani has provided a unique opportunity after some 35 years of estrangement and hostility for Iran and the United States to leave the past behind and to open a new chapter in their relations. Although the opposition of disgruntled right-wing elements in Iran to a deal with the West is real and worrying, President Obama has a much more formidable obstacle to overcome in the form of pro-Israeli lobbies and their supporters in the Congress.

    Unless America and Iran can show that their rapprochement can be mutually beneficial the naysayers will be able to kill the nuclear deal. Although it is still too early to speak of establishing normal diplomatic relations between the two countries, surely there are many areas of mutual concern where the two governments can work together. Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf are two areas that you have rightly mentioned. The rise of militant Sunni radicals and terrorists in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere is a more worrisome development and it is in both Iranian and American interest to work together to defeat or at least to mitigate the effect of that insurgency. Otherwise, all that America has tried to achieve in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf will be totally undermined and al-Qaeda will emerge triumphant with a vengeance.

    Iranians have for long maintained that they would welcome partnership in their nuclear program. Instead of nit-picking and trying to find obstacles to a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States should volunteer to work with Iran in building a number of new reactors, as she had agreed to do under the Shah, and supervise Iranian activities. Instead of trying to come down “like a ton of bricks” on European companies that wish to engage in economic activities with Iran, US companies should be encouraged to bid for lucrative oil and gas deals, rather than leaving the filed open to Russia and China. There are so many ways of turning a bad situation to mutual advantage and resolve one of the most intractable problems of the past 35 years.

  3. One may rightly think the US embassy in Tehran shhould have been reopened years ago, without being an “optimist”.

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