Sunday’s New York Times story that the US and Iran have agreed in principle to direct bilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program provides opportunity for a more honest conversation on Iran than the presidential candidates have had so far. Well, at least this is my hope.
I know the NYT report has already been rejected by the US and Iran. But the rejections on both sides have A similar quality. Despite the Iranian refusal to meet with the US in the talks that began in Istanbul last April, neither has rejected the possibility of bilateral talks as an outgrowth of the P5+1 process. And both have said that talks within the P5+1 frame will begin in late November (time and place to be determined). In any case, the P5+1 frame has increasingly become a venue dominated by US demands.
But the value of the NYT revelation or leak is not in the reporting of an agreement on a potential meeting but in the impact it may have on the nature of the conversation about Iran’s nuclear program. The reality is that the presidential race has so far managed to avoid the real Iran question. Certainly there has been grandstanding and threats. There was the frenzy over the need to set red line or deadline for Iran which was thankfully calmed — at least temporarily — by Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s inane performance at the UN.
The campaign has also been full of sounds bites regarding the seeming contrast between “having Israel’s back” and “not allowing daylight between Israel and the United States”. But there has been no conversation regarding the rapidly approaching decision time regarding Iran. No conversation regarding whether the United States, after years of offering what it knew would be refused, is willing to offer something that Iran can accept.
Everyone knows what the elements of the offer are: limits on levels of enrichment combined with a more robust inspection regime in exchange for calibrated reduction of some of the sanctions. There are many details to be worked out in difficult negotiations, but these details cannot even begin to be addressed without public acceptance of some enrichment in Iran or the acknowledgment of Iran’s proverbial “inalienable right.”
Why do I say that there is a rapidly approaching decision time for which direction to go in? Well, sanctions have worked to create economic havoc in Iran. No doubt both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Leader Ali Khamenei are primarily responsible for the deteriorating conditions. But their responsibility lies not in their incompetence in managing the economy per se but in their miscalculation. Khamenei, in particular, suspected negotiations would not go anywhere (at least, this is what he keeps saying) but he failed to prepare the country for his publicized “resistance economy.”
A resistance economy cannot be created overnight; certainly not when the economic helm of the country is in the combined hands of a populist president who underestimated the force of sanctions and a cantankerous Parliament caught between the demands of higher ups and pressures from lobbies and constituencies.
Not that Khamenei does not want a deal. He does and the encounters of the past four years have exhibited his openness to talks whenever there was hope in or detection of a degree of flexibility in the US position. But these encounters have also shown that he perceives himself as standing at the helm of a highly contentious political terrain that demands addressing certain bottom lines for Iran.
With the draconian economic measures imposed on Iran in the past year, the same political terrain makes quite impossible the acceptance of a deal that does not bring about some immediate, palpable, even if small, relaxation of the sanctions regime.
Some would say that this is precisely why this is no time for flexibility on the part of the United States. It will be throwing a lifeline to Khamenei and “them,” whoever they are. Now that sanctions are working, going for the throat is the right thing to do, they say. In response to this argument, which is also prevalent among some in the Iranian Diaspora who yell hard, accusing any country negotiating with Iran of being a traitor to the cause of the Iranian people, I would say that they are not adequately aware of the social and ideological forces than can be mobilized inside Iran to maintain a defiant, albeit limping, country.
Unless Khamenei and company are given a way out of the mess they have taken Iran into (with some help from the US and company), chances are that we are heading into a war in the same way we headed to war in Iraq. A recent Foreign Affairs article by Ralf Ekeus, the former executive chairman of the UN special Commission on Iraq, and Malfrid-Braut hegghammer, is a good primer on how this could happen.
The reality is that the current sanctions regime does not constitute a stable situation. First, the instability (and instability is different from regime change as we are sadly learning in Syria) it might beget is a constant force for policy re-evaluation on all sides (other members of the P5+1 included). Second, maintaining sanctions require vigilance while egging on the sanctioned regime to become more risk-taking in trying to get around them. This is a formula for war and it will happen if a real effort at compromise is not made. Inflexibility will beget inflexibility.
An additional benefit from directing the conversation away from whether to attack Iran and how to sanction it further is the positive impact on the nuclear debate inside Iran. There is no doubt in my mind that the conversation that has focused on attacking or sanctioning Iran until it kneels or submits has had the effect of making the hardliners defiantly louder and silencing those pushing for the resolution of the “Amrika issue.”
The loudness of the defiant folks rests on a simple argument again articulated last week in no uncertain terms by Khamenei himself: America’s problem with Iran is not the nuclear issue and talks for the US are not intended to resolve the nuclear standoff; they are a means to extract surrender from Iran.
If Khamenei is not correct, then a clearer public articulation of the extent of compromises the United States may be contemplating in order to resolve the nuclear standoff can encourage a conversation inside Iran as well. My bet is that it will also empower those pushing for Iran to show a bit more flexibility in its bottom line.