Heroic Leniency: Iran and the United States

In the diplomatic negotiations that are now quite unexpectedly blossoming between Iran and the United States, one has to say that the Iranians have shown the greater capacity for verbal formulas that catch popular imagination.

When the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, suggested that Iran would be willing to engage in diplomacy with what the Iranians used to call the Great Satan, everyone held their breath until we all knew if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would endorse these efforts.

On September 17, Khamenei said in a speech: “I agree with what I called `heroic leniency’ years ago because such an approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we stick to our main principles.”

Armed with the endorsement for heroic leniency, Rouhani went to the United Nations to start the process. He and President Obama danced carefully in the public limelight, and avoided going so far as to shake hands publicly. However, both sides agreed to have U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, meet publicly and privately to explore common ground.

One result was the Iranian suggestion to the United States that Obama telephone Rouhani, which he did. Rouhani said that the phone call showed “constructive interaction.” Obama no doubt agreed with the formulation. But from constructive interaction to successful negotiations is a long distance, with not much time to complete the trajectory. The question for both sides is how “lenient” they can be in their “constructive interaction” and still “stick to (their) main principles.” It does seem to require heroism.

It seems that both Rouhani and Obama would like these negotiations to be successful for the same three reasons on each side. First, they both feel that warfare would be a disaster for their own countries. Secondly, they both think that a success in these negotiations would strengthen their own hand considerably in internal politics. Thirdly, they are both keenly aware of the limits of their real power, both personal and national. Failure would weaken them immensely, both personally and nationally.

Still, both sides find considerable (perhaps I should say formidable) opposition in their own camp. Each side needs to be able to persuade its home audience that it got the better of the deal in any final agreement. Generally speaking, a true win-win resolution of conflicts is rare, and this is a particularly contentious and long-lasting controversy, quite a nasty one in fact.

So we must explore how much room there is for “heroic leniency.” The short answer is not much. First of all, there is deep distrust on both sides. The Iranians know that the United States has been engaged in trying to arrange regime changes ever since the CIA successfully conspired to oust Mohammad Mossadegh as Prime Minister in 1953, a misdeed at last acknowledged by President Obama. They believe that the United States is still in this game, although President Obama now says it isn’t, or it isn’t any longer.

The United States remembers the seizure of its embassy in Teheran in 1979, and the long imprisonment in the embassy of its personnel. Furthermore, the United States believes that the current Iranian regime has been trying for quite some time to become a nuclear power, despite multiple denials by the Iranian authorities, including by Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

The hawks in both countries believe that nothing has changed, and that no diplomatic statements by the other side are to be given the least credence. Let us start with the best-case scenario. Let us assume that both Rouhani and Obama mean what they are currently saying, that is, that the hawks are wrong and that both men are trying honestly to find a formula that would prove the hawks wrong.

What would they have to do to prove the hawks wrong? Quite a lot. The bottom line for the Iranians is that the United States recognize that they have the same rights concerning nuclear energy that all other countries have under current international law, which is the right to enrich uranium. This doesn’t mean that Iran necessarily has to develop nuclear armaments. The Iranians note that many countries (for example, South Korea and Brazil) have levels of uranium enrichment that the United States (and of course Israel) insist be denied to Iran. From the Iranian point of view, this is not only a breach of international law but an affront to their dignity.

The bottom line for the United States seems to be some verifiable guarantee that Iran will not actually develop nuclear weapons. For how many years (forever?) the United States expects such a commitment is not at all clear. One of the problems here is that it is not so easy to verify the implementation of such a commitment.

The negotiations concerning Syria’s political future, which is being called Geneva 2, are perhaps key to the possibility of an Iranian-United States accord. The Russians, who have played the prime role in heading off U.S. military action in Syria, are arguing for the inclusion of Iran among the participants. Should they succeed in convincing the United States and the west Europeans that this is a sensible idea, it will go some way to reassuring the Iranians that they are being taken seriously as a participant in decisions concerning their region.

But of course Geneva 2 may never take place, with or without Iran. At the moment, the so-called Syrian rebels are resisting coming, and if some come, it is not clear whether they can really commit the main fighting forces inside Syria.

Iran and the United States have important common interests in the region – in matters concerning Afghanistan and Iraq as well as in matters concerning Syria and Palestine. But to assert this objectively does not mean that this analysis will carry the day. The odds in fact seem small. But then a few weeks ago I would have said the same about the developments in Syria. There may yet be surprises.