Seyed Hossein Mousavian: Rules for Successful Engagement with Iran

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is an Iranian policymaker and scholar who served on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy team in negotiations with the EU and International Atomic Energy Agency. In 2007 he was arrested and charged with espionage for revealing secret documents to Western officials but was only given a two-year suspended jail sentence and barred for 5 years from serving in Iran’s diplomatic corps. It’s clear that Mousavian’s arrest was the result of a power struggle between the Ahmadinejad camp and the reformers which Mousavian has worked with throughout his career.

Currently a visiting scholar at Princeton, Mousavian has authored an article titled “Rules for Successful Engagement with Iran.” He argues that President Obama’s talk of moving forward “without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect” during his Cairo speech in 2009 was a new and welcomed step in the right direction but not followed through with actions. Ahmadinejad had likewise taken the “first tentative steps” at creating dialogue by writing letters to the George W. Bush and Obama administrations which were never answered. Obama’s initial gestures were “met with positive signs from Tehran” but then both governments receded into rigidity as far as concrete actions go.

Mousavian notes that despite instances of “unprecedented willingness of both Tehran and Washington to talk, engagement has failed thus far, and will continue to fail as long as both sides undermine it with “dual track approaches.” Dual track approaches are an “easy way to go” for both leaders considering domestic concerns and restraints, but “Rapprochement between Washington and Tehran will be possible only when, for the duration of engagement policy:”

  • The language of threats and angry rhetoric is set aside,
  • Hostile actions, sanctions, and other forms of coercive pressure are put on hold,
  • A comprehensive agenda, including all bilateral, regional and international issues, is discussed through direct talks,
  • Issues of common interest are given priority in the talks, and
  • Domestic political factions in both countries are convinced to cooperate, at least temporarily, while negotiations are conducted.

Mousavian is saying what many in the U.S. government already know but have thus far refused to come to terms with. Of course, in the absence of a real and urgent need to end this gridlock, neither side will back down from a position it has been building since 1979.

The U.S. has thus far remained devoted to appeasing Israel with its Iran policy rather than doing business with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s existence was founded on its oppositional posturing to the West. The Iranian government is, however, clearly the most disadvantaged and while the complexity of Iranian domestic politics has prevented it from aggressively courting the U.S., attempts by both the reformers and the Ahmadinejad faction of the principalists suggests that more power-holders are recognizing the importance of survival over ideology. But as long as the U.S. continues to strangle Iran with sanctions which are also hurting the Iranian people, the regime will do everything it can to act as though it’s not desperate. Until one side is forced to budge, progress towards good relations is unlikely. Meanwhile anti-rapprochement voices on both sides get louder and continue to garner support.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.


One Comment

  1. The US is applying all the pressure so it is the one that has to “budge”. Any movement by Iran will be regarded by Washington as a sign of weakness and the pressure will be increased.

    BTW, Washington has repeatedly demonstrated for the last 50 odd years under all Presidents that it does not want “good relations” with anyone (except maybe Israel), it just wants every country to kiss its arse.

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