Parallel Dilemmas in U.S.-Iran Negotiations


For the last month or so there have been formal negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear questions. Actually, the negotiations had been going on unofficially and secretly for over six months. Technically the group negotiating with Iran is the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). But the P5+1 is largely a cover for the key negotiator, the United States.

The public stance of each side is identical. They each have a primary objective, but their objectives are different ones. They each say they have issues of principle upon which they cannot compromise. Nonetheless, they each seem to be guided by what Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called “heroic leniency.”

There are further parallels. U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran President Hassan Rouhani both seem to want an arrangement that will avoid armed conflict. This is because each believes that armed conflict would have very negative consequences for both their countries and them personally.

In the case of Obama, he won his election originally on a platform calling for the end of the war in Iraq. He does not want his legacy defined as the president who involved the United States in a third major war in the Middle East in the twenty-first century. Quite apart from historical legacy, he believes a war would ruin any chances for passing the domestic legislation he is urgently seeking. He also fears that a war would increase the likelihood of the Democrats losing the presidential election in 2016.

In the case of Rouhani, he was elected with the tacit consent of Ayatollah Khamenei and the active support of large parts of the ever-increasing middle classes, both of whom saw him as the only major Iranian leader who might be able to negotiate successfully with the United States. Should he fail, he might be deposed as president, and in any case his internal political agenda would probably lose all possibility of achievement. A war would of course have more immediate destructive consequences for Iran than for the United States, but in the longer run the damage would be enormous for the United States as well.

The basic problem is that the primary objective of the two countries is defined in almost contradictory manners. The United States says it wants assurances that Iran will not and cannot develop nuclear weapons. Iran says it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons but insists it has the right that every other country in the world has – to develop increased capacity for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The negotiators are presumably seeking a magic formula that would bridge the gap between these two definitions of the situation. Each needs to be able to present the final text as a victory for its objectives. This seems an extremely difficult task even if both sides are negotiating in good faith. And furthermore, what is good faith? There are persons and groups in both countries who do not consider that the other side is negotiating in good faith or has any intention of a compromise. There are even persons or groups who do not think any compromise is desirable.

So both Obama and Rouhani are under constant pressure not to make “concessions” of any significance. And both Obama and Rouhani seem to have to prove from time to time that they will not yield on matters of principle. The internal critics keep asserting that the other country is “playing for time” while secretly pursuing its true unavowed objectives.

Negotiations cannot go on for too long without very negative political consequences for both leaders. One can only guess how long is too long, but I think one year from now is the most we have to reach an agreement. It seems to me not too likely that there will be such an agreement in that time span. The question therefore is – what happens then?

There are really only two alternative scenarios. The unhappy one is that in both countries political control falls into the hands of persons who will pursue their objectives as militantly as possible, menacing the other country with some kind of armed action. Once we start down that path, it would be not too difficult for someone or some group, deliberately or not, to launch the conflict. The third major Middle East war of the twenty-first century would start, and it would probably be the most damaging in its results for both countries. Furthermore, it would undoubtedly spread throughout the region.

There is another less disastrous scenario. It is that nothing much would happen. Negotiations may stop for a while and the current proponents of negotiations may fall out of grace to be replaced by more militant leaders. However, public opinion in both countries may still push their leaders to be cautious. And the military on both sides may warn the civilian leadership that armed action is too risky.

The second scenario is of course better than the first. But it doesn’t resolve anything. The situation festers. Neither country can move forward seriously to improve conditions in its own country. And the second scenario is always chancy, possibly turning into the first scenario after a while.

Ergo, what? The current negotiations are our best hope, indeed our only hope, for a somewhat positive outcome.