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Iran-US 'constructive engagement'? 5 things to watch for

Iran has been sending a record flurry of signals that it wants to reengage with 'a changed world.' What are the key issues that the US and Iran must grapple with?

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani smiles during an interview with NBC in Tehran, in this picture taken September 18, 2013.

President.ir/Courtesy via Reuters

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Never before in the 34-year history of Iran’s Islamic Republic have its officials sent more signals in less time about a desire to reengage with the US and the outside world.

President Hasan Rouhani defined a policy of “constructive engagement” in a “changed” world, and urged fellow leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” in today's Washington Post. Days earlier, he vowed that Iran would “never” pursue nuclear weapons and called war “weakness” in an interview with NBC News.

Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week said Iran would show “heroic flexibility,” though it would take care not forget the “opponent … and what his real goal is.”

But can the promise of those words be realized, even in part? As Iran pushes its charm offensive in a bid to ease crippling US-led sanctions and end the stalemate over its controversial nuclear program, analysts note several points that may shape future diplomatic efforts:

1. ‘Big for big’

“After 10 years of back-and-forth, what all sides don’t want in relation to our nuclear file is clear,” Mr. Rouhani writes in the Post.

“But to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,” writes Rouhani. “We all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want – clearly, concisely and sincerely – and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action.”

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To do that means transforming the cumbersome and stalled negotiating process between Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) from its current focus on incremental steps aimed at building confidence, but with no defined end state.

“We have got to be a lot more creative than we have been prepared to be…. We have to go ‘big for big,’” says George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The baby-step model “is totally self-defeating at this point [because] the Iranians want to know where the road ends, not where it starts. Because, is it a dark alley where they are going to get mugged halfway in it? Or does it actually lead to a place that is valued by them?” asks Mr. Perkovich, speaking Thursday in New York on a panel organized by The Iran Project, a group of former officials and experts who have pushed for US-Iran dialogue for more than a decade.

 2. Mutual acceptance

 High on the list of grievances between the US and Iran is an unwillingness to accept the other’s presence or influence in the Middle East. Iran has for decades led an “axis of resistance” against US and Israeli interests; American officials until recent years went out of their way to avoid referring by name to Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary government.

“What is the deal that permits Iran to accept the United States’ position in the region, the legitimacy of our position in the region, and we accept the legitimacy of Iran’s position in the region?” asks former US Amb. Frank Wisner, also speaking on The Iran Project panel.

The solution would require the US to “balance our way forward into the future,” says Ambassador Wisner, adding that at the meetings at the UN next week,  “we’re going to see a lot clearer the parameters of what might be possible.” Rouhani addresses the General Assembly Tuesday, the same day as President Obama.

Says Wisner: “We won’t get to [Syria talks in] Geneva without Iran, we won’t get surety for our ships and sailors in the [Persian] Gulf, we won’t get a framework for managing Afghanistan, we won’t get a package of understandings that can deal with Israeli sensitivities – we won’t get any of these if we don’t have a core set of understandings with Iran.”

3.  The challenge in the US

But getting there will be far from easy. The US Congress has imposed increasingly harsh sanctions, which today target the spectrum of Iran’s economy, from limiting oil exports – which have dropped in two years from 2.4 million barrels per day to below 1 million – to blocking central bank and financial transactions.

Analysts often say Congress is “in love” with sanctions, a default policy that lawmakers may believe will force Iran to capitulate. Iran has grated beneath this US carrot-and-stick approach, saying there are too many sticks, and carrots anyway are fit only for “donkeys.”

Nasser Hadian-Jazy, who teaches international relations at Tehran University, expects relatively quick progress on a nuclear deal, but is less optimistic about any immediate US-Iran breakthrough.

The reason? “A political structure exists in both countries which involves the hostile relationship,” and many of those who benefit are in positions of power and will “create all sorts of impediments,” says Mr. Hadian-Jazy in an interview. 

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“Just to see a US senator or congressman say something positive about Iran, he or she is going to pay a cost; but if they say negative things, they aren’t going to pay a cost for it,” he says. “It is exactly the same in Iran: If any member of the Iranian parliament says anything positive about the US or negotiation or improving the relationship, he or she is going to pay a cost. But [not] if they say a negative thing.” 

Indeed, the idea of regime change in Iran still motivates some US lawmakers. 

“The habit in Washington of seeing an enemy and committing all resources and attitudes toward it is going to be difficult to overcome,” says William Luers, a former senior US official and ambassador who directs The Iran Project.

“If the United States is capable of changing attitudes – and it’s not clear, given the congressional attitudes that have developed over the sanctions issue, that the president will be able to do what he probably has to do – [then] we’re at the edge of something that could be very important,” says Ambassador Luers, also speaking in New York.

4.  The nuclear conundrum

Iranian officials have stated repeatedly that they do not want nuclear weapons, and even that they adhere to a past religious ruling by Ayatollah Khamenei rejecting such arms.

“That’s the key to the solution,” says Perkovich from Carnegie.

The watchwords should be “distrust and verify,” he says. “We know that the United States does not trust the Iranians, but what we don’t generally perceive is that the Iranians distrust us about a thousand times more, and that the leader has reasons for it.”

In his Washington Post piece, Rouhani writes that, “A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights.” For Iran, he writes, mastering the atomic fuel cycle “is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.” 

Still the US doesn’t trust Iran’s rejection of nuclear weapons, says Perkovich, “so the solution is going to be for them to provide enough transparency that verifies in fact that they don’t want nuclear weapons … that goes way beyond [uranium] enrichment and fuel cycles.”

Likewise, adds Perkovich, there is a burden of proof on the US side: “We say we don’t seek regime change but rather behavior change, and that they can have a peaceful nuclear program. They don’t believe that…. So we’re going to have to verify to them that we don’t seek regime change, [and] the obvious way to do that is pulling off the sanctions that have put the most pressure on the regime.”

5.  Building on mutual interests

Iran’s new president notes shared strategic interests with the US, and that “the world has changed,” such that it is “no longer a zero-sum game,” but one in which “cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities,” writes Rouhani in the Post.

He also states that there are limits to using kinetic force. A decade and two wars after 9/11, “Al Qaeda and other militant extremists continue to wreak havoc,” while daily bloodshed continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, writes Rouhani. “The unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breeds violence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, such as terrorism and extremism.”

The first example could be Syria, where Rouhani pledged his government’s “readiness” support dialogue for a solution. Both sides fear the rise of jihadi Islamist fighters among rebel ranks, even though Iran and the US back opposing sides on the battlefield.

 “Iran’s in Syria. It is foolish of us to imagine that you are going to see a way through the Syrian crisis today without the involvement of the Iranians,” says Wisner. “It’s an accommodation that behooves us as Americans to take on and be aware of and be ready to undertake.”

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott 


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