Both the US and Iran think they are the stronger party as they head into nuclear talks this week. But that could cause deal-breaking miscalculations.
Expectations of change and progress have rarely been higher for long-stalled nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers, which are set to resume next week in Geneva.
Iran steps to the table with a new sense of power, promising “transparency” and a readiness to engage, buoyed by the June election of centrist President Hassan Rouhani and the belief that it is winning a regional tug of war in Syria, ensuring the survival of its embattled ally, President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States also steps to the table with an emboldened sense of power, convinced that the ever-expanding array of global sanctions it has orchestrated to cripple Iran’s economy has forced Iran to the table, ready to compromise.
Each perception may hold kernels of truth, but analysts say such self-assessments will need to be carefully managed if hard-liners on each side bent on undermining any deal are to be neutralized.
“The single biggest threat to this unique window for dialogue is misguided perceptions of each side's respective strengths and weaknesses,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst doing doctoral research at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), currently in Tehran.
“When two rivals walk into a room, each convinced that he has the upper hand, it can end only in disaster,” says Mr. Shabani. Mr. Rouhani “is stuck in a precarious position where he has to very carefully send parallel messages of both strength and weakness. He needs the sense of strength to bring people on board, but he also needs the sense of weakness to prevent the kind of overconfidence that might hinder his ability to sell major concessions at home.”
This means that while Rouhani has highlighted his support across a broad swath of Iran’s political spectrum, including most crucially the backing of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he also paints a gloomy picture of the economy and makes clear his aim is to lift sanctions.
The contours of an expected deal have been clear since the current set of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) began in early 2012. The aim is to render Iran’s nuclear program incapable of ever producing an atomic bomb.
Iran insists it only seeks peaceful nuclear power, rejects nuclear weapons on religious and strategic grounds, and wants sanctions lifted in exchange for accepting limits and more intrusive inspections.
The P5+1 wants Iran to impose verifiable limits on its most sensitive work – halting current uranium enrichment of 20 percent purity, for example, which is a few technical steps away from bomb-grade – and to “operationalize” a religious ruling by Mr. Khamenei that rejects nuclear weapons.
Iran's political and regional environment has changed dramatically since the failure of earlier rounds of talks in Istanbul, Turkey; Baghdad; Moscow; and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Combative former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been replaced by a smiling moderate cleric who vanquished a host of conservative rivals at the polls, and Khamenei said weeks ago that a “heroic flexibility” would prevail on the Iranian side to break the nuclear and sanctions deadlock.
Yet speaking to university students in Tehran last week, Khamenei said: “After the passing of three decades, the nightmare of the Westerners and the Americans has turned into reality and a great regional and national power has emerged that … pressures cannot overthrow."
Rouhani’s vow that Iran “seeks to resolve problems, not create them,” will therefore be tested in Geneva, where Iranian officials say they will lay down new proposals that, if they are acted upon, are expected to be repaid with sanctions relief.
But Iran also sees itself as helping to usher in a new world order. Rouhani, in his first speech to the United Nations on Sept. 25, said a “critical period of transition” is now under way that is ending the “bipolar division of the world into ‘superior us’ and ‘inferior others.’ ”
“Iran’s diplomatic flexibility is serious, but should not be mistaken for willingness to surrender,” Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official who is now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote last week in The New York Times.
Iran has backed Mr. Assad with cash and troops and its proxy Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, has joined the Syrian regime on the battlefield against rebel forces backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. At this point, it seems increasingly possible that Assad's rule will outlast the war, which has left more than 100,000 dead.
The fight “has showed Iran to be the only regional actor capable of successfully running a war in another country,” writes Mr. Nasr.
“America will be going to the negotiating table without the credible threat of war, facing an Iran basking in newfound domestic stability and benefiting from its pivotal role in Syria,” adds Nasr. “Negotiations between the two, for the first time, cannot be based on threatening Iran into submission, but on persuading it to compromise.”
That presents a paradigm shift for some in Washington, where US lawmakers and the pro-Israel lobby, especially, are pushing for more sanctions. In testimony to the Senate last week, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the top US negotiator with Iran at the P5+1 talks, asked Congress to hold off adding new sanctions pending the outcome of the Geneva talks.
Lacking any “substantive plan that is real and verifiable” from Iran, said Ambassador Sherman, will mean that “our Congress will take action [to increase sanctions pressure], and we will support them to do so.”
And there was no shortage of support for more sanctions. "As long as Iran is actively pursuing its nuclear program, we must actively work to increase the pressure," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The result is that Obama, just like Rouhani, must send parallel messages of strength and weakness, says Shabani of SOAS.
“[Obama] has to say the Iranians are at the table because we brought them to the brink,” says Shabani. “But if he pushes too far, Congress will say, ‘If sanctions brought them here, why stop our sanctions now?’; then Obama can’t sell any [negotiation] at home.”
Weighing up those challenges for both sides, “Iran has certain natural advantages that the United States lacks,” wrote Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East peace negotiator, and Mitchel Hochberg, both now at the Wilson Center in Washington, in Foreign Policy last week.
“Iran is a free agent in negotiating with the United States. We aren’t in as enviable [a] position,” suggest the authors. “Whatever political constraints Khamenei faces, they aren’t nearly as narrowing as ours. Between Congress and US allies – Israel but also Saudi Arabia – the US position must take into account an array of suspicions and fear, some of them at times competing with each other.”
While US troubles may be welcome news for Rouhani, he has his own tricky-to-please constituencies in Iran that can only be won over with progress. Khamenei said last week that some aspects of Rouhani’s outreach in New York had been “inappropriate” – a criticism believed aimed at a historic 15-minute Obama-Rouhani phone call, the first such high-level US-Iran contact since before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
But that is not likely to affect Iran’s power calculus in Geneva.
“On the negative side is the bad economy, on the positive side Iran is perhaps the most stable and calm country that is in a process of change – a process that [in the Mideast] can be anything from an election to a civil war,” says a veteran Iranian analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “Iran is on the peaceful side of it.”