by John Limbert
Tehran and Washington have apparently hired the same speechwriter to compose their public statements about the state of Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). In both capitals the proclaimed view is identical: the nuclear agreement is only a one-off event and has no larger implications for U.S.-Iranian relations; there has been no break in the 35-year cycle of hostility between the two countries; the devil remains the devil, even if we had to make a deal with it; and the other side remains devious, domineering, and untrustworthy and has not abandoned its long-time goal of doing (us) mischief.
There is even competition to outdo the other side in insisting that, because of this hostility, the JCPOA will remain a limited, unique episode. In his recent Iranian New Year’s message, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei denounced American “tricks” such as President Obama’s Persian New Year’s message to the Iranian people and his setting up a ceremonial Iranian haft-seen (tabletop arrangement of seven symbolic items) at the White House. He continued, “I am emphasizing my point about the enemy; I mean the United States.” The nuclear deal, he insisted, has not changed that reality.
For its part, the U.S. has taken the same public attitude. President Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice recently told The Atlantic reporter Jeff Goldberg:
The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran. The aim was simply to make a dangerous country less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.
The editorialists at Tehran’s conservative newspaper Keyhan could not resist calling Rice’s statement “only a small part of the increasing anti-Iranian rhetoric of the American officials in recent months.”
We get the point: both parties agree the U.S. and Iran were not friends, are not friends, and are not going to be friends. In Tehran, America is still the “great Satan” and “world arrogance.” In Washington, Iran remains the “world’s number-one sponsor of terrorism” with hegemonic ambitions to dominate the region. In her comments, Rice barely avoided saying “malign,” the U.S. military’s favorite adjective for Iranian actions.
Rhetoric vs. Reality
Despite these denials, the reality is different. In both capitals, “The lady doth protest too much.” Although officials will never admit it, there has been a drastic change in relations, and we are seeing interactions that a few ago were unthinkable. For 34 years, since 1979, the features of U.S.-Iranian relations were as follows:
- The two sides barely spoke. Exchanges that did occur consisted of trading insults, accusations, and threats.
- Attempts to change the relationship into something more productive foundered on suspicion, mistrust, diplomatic ineptitude, toxic domestic politics, bad timing, and bad luck.
- Both sides nursed real and imagined grievances that festered and fed on themselves.
- Without communication, small misunderstandings became major incidents. For example, when three young American hikers wandered into Iranian territory near Marivan, in Iranian Kurdistan, the episode, instead of being resolved quietly between consular and legal authorities, became a major political issue that bogged down on both sides for over two years.
- The P5 + 1 negotiators over Iran’s nuclear program were mired in fruitless positional bargaining, statements of maximalist positions, and endless haggling over peripheral issues such as the time and place of a next meeting. The Iranian representative took extreme measures to avoid meeting his American counterpart.
- Both sides convinced themselves that it was somehow more important to be “tough” than to be smart.
Like it or not, the above stalemate is breaking. The changes over the last three years have been profound, even as both sides deny that any change has happened. Washington and Tehran have discovered that saying “yes”—hard as it is—will not cause the sky to fall. Even those who beat their chests the hardest—such as the infamous “Mr. Bigmouth” in Tehran and those promoting hysterical Iranophobia in the U.S.—will have to admit, to their dismay, that things have changed.
Beyond the legal and scientific details of the nuclear agreement, negotiating and signing it was a major achievement. Both parties had to set aside beloved maximalist rhetoric if they wanted, in Washington’s case, verifiable limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and, in Tehran’s, relief from international economic and financial sanctions. Most of the arguments against the agreement were not about the strengths and weaknesses of its contents. Instead, opponents criticized the entire process of diplomacy, stressed the evil and deceitful nature of the other side, and demanded a surrender instead of a negotiated agreement. On one side, opponents condemned the deal as “worse than Munich,” recalling the 1938 agreement with Nazi Germany that has come to symbolize selling out and the futile appeasement of aggression. On the other, opponents called the deal “worse than Turkmanchai,” recalling the humiliating 1829 treaty between Czarist Russia and Qajar Iran that cost the latter valuable territory and her very sovereignty. The comparisons, if not accurate, were very powerful for both parties by evoking memories of past degradation and defeat.
Evidence of Progress
Whatever people think of the nuclear agreement, the process of negotiation, and the whole subject of engagement, they will have to admit that, despite their denunciations, things are not the same now as they were just a few years ago. The following events, for example, would have been inconceivable.
- American Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister M. Javad Zarif are in constant communication and are meeting regularly on issues related and unrelated to the nuclear deal;
- American Secretary of Energy Ernest Muniz and his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi are in regular communication to resolve questions about the technical issues of the JCPOA;
- The above contacts are described as “positive” and “productive,” adjectives not heard in an American-Iranian context for over three decades;
- Lower-level officials are also in contact, and exchange email messages directly—something unheard of just a few years ago;
- These exchanges have shredded Washington’s dubious “no-contact” policy that forbade American officials from dealing with their Iranian counterparts;
- Iranian officials are able to have contacts with American counterparts—even Zarif and Rouhani with President Obama—with the apparent backing of the supreme leader, who fulminates publicly against any hint of rapprochement with the U.S.
This unprecedented level of contact has prevented the inevitable misunderstandings and setbacks from becoming debacles that could sink the agreement and the whole process of engagement. In January 2016, the new atmosphere led to the quick release of captive American sailors whose boats had gone into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. While opponents of the deal in the U.S. were screaming “hostage crisis” (and probably wishing for a repeat of the1979 fiasco that helped end Jimmy Carter’s presidency), Kerry could call Zarif, and Zarif apparently could get the authorities to move Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Navy to do the smart thing. A few years before there would have been no one to pick up Kerry’s call.
The April 22 meeting between Kerry and Zarif in New York provided another illustration of a new reality. The statements of the two were models of professionalism in a setting where countries have serious differences.
KERRY: As President Obama has said, as Secretary [of the Treasury] Jack Lew has said, and as I have said, and we have said it repeatedly, the United States is not standing in the way and will not stand in the way of business that is permitted with Iran since the JCPOA took effect…
But I want to make clear the United States is committed to doing our part as we believe it is in our interest to ensure that the JCPOA…is in fact working for all participants.
ZARIF: We will continue to have differences with the United States. Our differences are very serious in a good number of areas. We will – but we have decided together with the P5 + 1 to address this issue and we want to show that P5 + 1 and Iran have been able to resolve a very serious difficult issue through negotiations, and I believe we should take the necessary steps in that regard…
KERRY: The foreign minister is correct: there are differences and some of them are obviously serious differences. Those have to be the subject of future discussion. But it’s important for people to understand that an agreement is an agreement, and we need to separate, even as we are working to resolve those other differences.
As both governments continue to issue statements that the nuclear agreement has changed nothing and the two sides remain sworn enemies, it is clear that much has changed. Now both sides have decided, after 35 years of exchanging empty rhetoric, to take a different path: to acknowledge disagreements and deal with them through contact, discussion, and engagement. Those changes, despite the official denials, are a very big deal.
John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.