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4 ways US and Iran can make nuclear talks work

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2. Better understand needs

Diplomacy must understand and attempt to reconcile a broader array of interests.

Washington sees today’s Iran against a history of national disgrace and regional disquiet. From the US perspective, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and ensuing hostage crisis were some of the greatest humiliations for America. Through its proxy, Hezbollah, Iran killed 241 American marines in Lebanon in 1983 and shifted the tide of regional stability with its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. More recently, Iranian support for militants in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf, and even Africa has destabilized those regions and gone against American interests.

Given this record, Iran’s nuclear program, though less of a danger than many profess, is seen in the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as a threat to the region.

Why might Iran seek a nuclear deterrent in the first place? In 1953, Iranian democracy was the victim of an American-led overthrow. Its post-revolutionary leaders feel threatened by the US military presence in the region. America has troops in nearby Afghanistan and Iraq, a NATO base in Turkey, and a US naval base in Bahrain. It has alliances in the Caucasus and military relationships with the Arabs of the Gulf – not to mention its support for Iraq in a war that killed an estimated half million Iranians in the 1980s.

America and Israel have given armed support to anti-Iranian insurgents, while sanctions have stunted Iranian development for decades. And even when President Obama “extended a hand” to Tehran in 2009, the US was simultaneously ramping up cyber warfare programs against Iran.

If you were an ayatollah facing an American threat, would you rather wind up like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who didn’t have a bomb and were toppled? Or like North Korea and Pakistan (or China, Israel, and India), which do have the bomb and were given concessions, and in some cases, military aid?

Iran’s nuclear program has become not just a strategic necessity in the eyes of the country’s ruling elites, but even an issue of pride for those in the opposition. The program speaks to Iran’s desire to be recognized as the regional leader that its geography, population, and influence otherwise make it. 

From America’s perspective, these talks have been about the nuclear program. But from Iran’s, there can be no resolution of the nuclear program without resolving Iran’s broader insecurity, which is what drives the nuclear program. Ultimately, these talks must be a part of a broader realignment of the US-Iranian relationship.

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