Gary Sick on Iran: Is Agreement Possible?

by Jasmin Ramsey

Columbia University Professor Gary Sick, who served as an Iran specialist on the National Security Council staffs of Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, examines US Persian Gulf Policy in Obama’s Second Term in the next issue of Aspenia, the Aspen Istitute Italia’s highly regarded journal on international affairs. Dr. Sick’s entire article is available on his personal blog, but following is his answer to the burning question on the mind of every observer of the so-called Iranian nuclear crisis.

Is Agreement Possible?

The differences between Iran and the United States, which have prevented a resumption of diplomatic relations for 34 years since the Iranian Revolution, are rooted more in the domestic politics of the two countries than in their respective foreign policies. In the United States, attitudes toward Iran were permanently crystallized by the 444 days that Iran held American diplomats hostage. In that heavily televised crisis, Iran came to be perceived as an unruly mob of fanatics waving their fists and shouting “Death to America.” No American politician wins any votes by taking a moderate stand on Iran; instead, there is a competition to demonstrate who can take the hardest line. Hence the proliferation of harsh sanctions and the denunciation of former Senator Hagel for his expressed preference for a diplomatic solution.

Iran, in turn, is a product of its revolution, which was anti-American as much as anti-shah. Iran today is still being governed by some of the same people who made the revolution, and they cling to the old slogans. In many cases, slogans are all that remain of a revolution that has failed to produce efficient governance and has replaced legitimacy with repression. There is a heavy measure of paranoia in the aging Iranian leadership, which prefers to blame Western interference for all its troubles, rather than critically examine its own failings.

The historical landscape of U.S.-Iran relations is littered with misunderstandings and missed opportunities. It takes real political courage in Washington and in Tehran to articulate a negotiating agenda based on compromise and mutual confidence-building. Each side is wedded to its maximum demands, fearful that the other side will trick them or simply pocket any concessions without a reciprocal gesture.

If the international community is willing to accept an Iran that, like Japan or dozens of other countries, has the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon, it would almost certainly be possible to negotiate a settlement of the nuclear issue. Western negotiators have instead insisted that Iran must give up its entire uranium enrichment program. Iran, for its part, insists that its rights to pursue a full nuclear fuel cycle must be acknowledged before any progress is possible. That is a recipe for the kind of inertia and stagnation that have characterized the nuclear negotiations for the past decade.

What is required is a working agenda that defines an end point that is acceptable to Iran but is preceded by a series of verifiable steps and confidence-building measures. The West must accept that Iran is permitted to conduct a civilian nuclear energy program, and Iran must accept limitations on its stockpiles of enriched uranium and extensive international monitoring of its nuclear activities. Both sides have indicated at times that this arrangement would be acceptable, but neither has yet been able to put a persuasive negotiating package on the table.

In his first term, President Obama indicated his willingness to engage with Iran, but his actions fell short of his words. If he is willing to invest real political capital and diplomatic creativity in a negotiating process, he could change the face of the Middle East. Past history, however, provides little basis for optimism.

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Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. Dr. Sick’s statement regarding the non-delivery of economic progress by the Iranian revolution is without context, and perhaps even wrong. The context of Iran’s post-revolution economic history includes an imposed war by Saddam with the aid of the US and western allies, along with over 30 years of increasingly punitive sanctions yet again imposed by the same actors that supported the war against Iran. This is hardly an appropriate context to measure economic progress! Even within this context, Iran’s economic progress, as viewed from the least fortunate strata of Iranian society, has been better than modest. There is much more that can be said about this point, but the mentioned facts are suggestive.

    Mutual confidence building is severely challenged when one of the parties insists on ultra-legal and supra-international demands! As a signatory to the NPT, the starting point of any negotiation for Iran is rightfully Iran’s rights and obligations – yet the opposing side wishes to begin the negotiation from an unknown set of rights and obligations without any hint of the ultimate goal. Having learned the historical lessons, Iran is correct for being highly skeptical.

    The ball is in the US court. However, President Obama is paralyzed by his own indecision and his overly muscular and pro status-quo oriented inner circle. Iran may have the same internal political dynamics, but the Supreme Leader does not suffer from the same paralysis.

  2. and do not for whatever reason mention that middle-eastern country by
    name (must not be singled out), the one who has a nukular weapons
    program, maintains a live stockpile, has sold nukular weapons to the
    (other) apartheid state (r.i.p.)……………yes, the one with the lobby.
    the lobby which must not be mentioned…..oops.

  3. The issue with Obama is he is never willing to take any risk in the furtherance of one of his noble policy goals, foreign or domestic. That means that domestic pressure will prevent the Obama administration from moving forward in their professed goal of improving relations with Iran. Cowardly…

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