Since late January, when the White House decided there would be advantage in reverting to a policy of engagement after having acquired political cover in the form of additional sanctions, the possibility of direct talks between the United States and Iran has been in the air.
Direct talks have been a rarity since 1979. But Iranians and Americans got together constructively in Geneva in the autumn of 2001 when Iran was offering help for U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and for some time after that an informal back-channel was kept open.
To secure Iranian agreement to direct talks now, it would make sense to work through an intermediary. The Turkish and Omani governments spring to mind. Turkey and Oman are long-standing friends of the US, but are also friends of Iran (even if the Syrian crisis has created strains in the political relationship between Ankara and Tehran). Algeria might also be ready to help, as it did in 1980-81.
In Tehran approval for talks would have to come from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Approval would not be a “slam-dunk”. The Leader’s public pronouncements over the years suggest a profound distrust of U.S. sincerity (which mirrors wide-spread American distrust of Iranian good faith). His statements also imply that he considers the U.S. arrogant and aggressive and finds this deeply offensive.
In August 2010, for instance, he is reported to have said:
We have rejected negotiations with the U.S. for clear reasons. Engaging in negotiations under threats and pressure is not in fact negotiating. For the same reason Iranian officials have stated that the Islamic Republic is ready to engage in negotiations but not with a U.S. that is seeking to conduct negotiations under threats, sanctions and bullying.
At Friday prayers on 3 February 2012 he said:
We should not fall for the smile on the face of the enemy. We have had experience of them over the last 30 years…. We should not be cheated by their false promises and words; they break their promises very easily … they feel no shame … they simply utter lies.
So any U.S. initiative could fall on stony ground–unless the White House were to find some way of convincing Ayatollah Khamenei that this time it’s different. For that they have one invaluable asset: the President. To many non-Americans he comes across as a decent man, whose commitment to making the world a better place is sincere. His speeches on foreign policy in 2009 were devoid of arrogance and suggested a new United States of America, bent on respecting other states’ rights.
But the White House would also need to fashion its public diplomacy carefully. Calls on Iran to demonstrate its sincerity, to show it can be trusted, and to build confidence in its intentions would go down badly in Tehran.
Nine years have passed since Iran admitted to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) that it had failed to declare the acquisition of small quantities of nuclear material, and the use of a fraction of that material to test a few primitive centrifuge machines and conduct laser enrichment experiments. Those failings were soon remedied, as the IAEA Statute required. No further non-declarations have come to light since (unless one believes what has not been proved: that Iran had no intention of declaring the Fordow plant in 2009). The declaration of basic nuclear weapons research is not required by the NPT.
For two years after its initial admissions Iran volunteered cooperation that went beyond what the NPT requires, only desisting after the IAEA Board demonstrated that it would not tolerate Iran making full use of its NPT rights. Thereafter Iran cooperated as required by the NPT; only on a point of legal interpretation has the IAEA found fault.
Trust between nations is built through negotiation, not by the peremptory setting of arbitrary tests. A good international agreement includes provisions for verifying compliance, so that the longer the parties remain compliant, the more confident they can be in one another’s good faith.
Of course arrogance and aggression are diplomatic expressions of power. There are circumstances, e.g. the 1995 Dayton peace process, in which they can be effective dispute resolution tools. But the evidence is that they do not work with Iran. Having what it takes to survive when put under pressure is vital to Iran’s sense of self. Successful defiance of U.S. power enables Iran to demonstrate to itself and to other non-aligned countries that it is on the way back from 200 years of humiliation at Western and Russian hands.
A further complication lies in the fact that more issues divide the U.S. and Iran than the nuclear controversy. Americans reckon that the Islamic Republic has harmed U.S. interests in many ways over the last 32 years. It’s natural that this has generated much bad feeling.
But this too is a mirror image of what Iranians feel. Those 32 years have witnessed the U.S. siding with Saddam Hussein in his unlawful invasion of Iran, awarding a medal to an officer responsible for shooting down an Iranian airliner, excluding Iran from the Madrid Middle East peace conference despite cooperative Iranian behaviour, rewarding Iran’s leaders for their help in Afghanistan by branding them as “evil”, trying to cripple the Iranian economy through sanctions, flirting with “regime change”, and threatening unauthorised use of force against Iranian assets.
The combined list of Iranian and U.S. grievances is so long that the only sensible way forward is for both parties to let bygones be bygones and convince one another that they want to focus on improving their relationship. That means identifying where U.S. and Iranian interests overlap and giving expression to that overlap through language that is negotiated fair and square.
Is the White House ready for that kind of engagement? Can they afford to be so reasonable, and unaggressive, in an election year? If they can’t, they’d be well-advised to keep their distance. The last thing the world needs right now is a further twist in the downward spiral of US/Iranian relations.
Peter Jenkins was the UK’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA for 2001-06 and is now a partner in ADRg Ambassadors.