A difference of basic interests, not just opinions, with Iran
By Michael Singh I recently spoke at a symposium titled, "Iran: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?" convened by the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) project at Harvard University. At the symposium, Prof. Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University gave a compelling talk calling into question the validity of historical analogies (e.g. America’s Cold War engagement ...
I recently spoke at a symposium titled, "Iran: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?" convened by the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) project at Harvard University. At the symposium, Prof. Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University gave a compelling talk calling into question the validity of historical analogies (e.g. America’s Cold War engagement with China and the USSR) often used to argue in favor of U.S. engagement with Iran. He posted his comments to the MESH blog, and I posted an abbreviated version of my own comments in response. My post also follows here:
In his May 1 sermon, Tehran Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami proclaimed, "You do not want talks!" Khatami was addressing the United States, but the remark would have more appropriately been directed to his own leaders in the Iranian regime. If one thing is clear about the Obama administration’s Iran policy, it is that the United States does indeed want talks. However, as Michael Mandelbaum suggests, it is very likely that Iran’s rulers do not.
Prof. Mandelbaum’s examination of the Cuban, Chinese, and Russian analogies casts doubt on the prospects for U.S.-Iran engagement. Further doubt is raised by an examination of the extensive record of such engagement already logged by U.S. administrations since 1979. Every U.S. president has reached out to the Iranian regime, to no avail.
This outreach has failed, in my view, not because of insufficient U.S. effort; to take one example, the Clinton administration made nearly one dozen unilateral concessions despite receiving no reciprocation from the government of Mohammad Khatami. Nor is it, as is often claimed, due to historical grievances or mistrust. In response to President Obama’s Nowruz message to Iran, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani scoffed, stating that the U.S.-Iran dispute was not an "emotional issue" that could be solved with "fine words." The frequent citation of these two explanations for the lack of progress in U.S.-Iran relations reflects a certain solipsism — a belief that Iranian policy is a function of U.S. policy, and that changes to U.S. policy would therefore bring corresponding changes by Iran.
In fact, at the heart of the U.S.-Iran dispute are divergent interests. Tehran does not desire reconciliation with the United States. There are two reasons for this, both of which stem from the fact that the Iranian regime values its own survival above all. First, anti-Americanism is a pillar of the Revolution, and any acknowledgment by Iran’s rulers that one facet of Revolutionary ideology is anachronistic risks challenging the entire system. Second, as Prof. Mandelbaum notes, autocratic regimes such as Iran’s thrive on closure and are threatened by openness.
While the regime may not desire reconciliation with the United States, it does desire talks with the United States. For Tehran, these talks are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. They confer upon the regime a greater legitimacy and prestige than they would otherwise enjoy, and bolster Iran’s hegemonic aspirations. Talks carry other benefits for the regime, and dangers for the United States; they risk disheartening advocates of reform in Iran and U.S. allies in the region, they may convey weakness to Iran’s leaders and embolden rather than temper their nuclear ambitions, and, most practically, may give the regime the time it needs to perfect its nuclear capabilities.
Put together, this paints a rather bleak picture for engagement: poor prospects for success, and significant risks to even trying. Yet every U.S. president has tried, for a simple reason: the alternatives are grim. Faced with the possibilities of a nuclear-armed Iran or a war with Iran, it is tempting to grasp at even the smallest chance of success in negotiations. This leads me to the conclusion that the Obama administration’s efforts must be concentrated on increasing that chance of success. Doing this will require pressure, and lots of it, in order to convince Iran’s rulers that a negotiated agreement, despite the threat it poses to the regime, will be less costly than either the status quo or further progress down the nuclear weapons path. War and peace in the Middle East hang on this simple geopolitical arithmetic.
Michael Singh is a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC
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