Waiting for Tehran
As Iran's leaders waffle, don't be tempted to think all is lost. Here's why the country’s stalling on its nuclear deal with the West is good news.
Imagine the assignment: As a staffer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), you have been tasked with the seemingly routine mission of keeping tabs on a country's progress toward a proposed agreement. Sounds easy enough; you might go back and read presidential statements, follow the ambassador's movements, and try to deduce a prospective reply. But if the country is Iran and the agreement is on sending uranium abroad for processing, you'd be out of luck. Since the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) first proposed the arrangement on October 1, pronouncements and leaks from Tehran have said everything from "Yes, we'll cooperate" to "No, we won't" to "Then again, maybe."
Imagine the assignment: As a staffer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), you have been tasked with the seemingly routine mission of keeping tabs on a country’s progress toward a proposed agreement. Sounds easy enough; you might go back and read presidential statements, follow the ambassador’s movements, and try to deduce a prospective reply. But if the country is Iran and the agreement is on sending uranium abroad for processing, you’d be out of luck. Since the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) first proposed the arrangement on October 1, pronouncements and leaks from Tehran have said everything from "Yes, we’ll cooperate" to "No, we won’t" to "Then again, maybe."
Surely such waffling can’t be a good sign, most will likely assume, reading it as yet another example of Iran’s well rehearsed political dissonance. But such flip-flopping might be good news. For the first time, a real debate about the nuclear issue is going on in Iran, and conflicting statements may well be proof of progress.
Today, many of the world’s leaders are, like the imagined staffer, at a loss as to Iran’s true view. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei concluded during the first week of November that "the foreign policy apparatus in Iran has frozen." U.S. President Barack Obama echoed that fear on Nov. 9, saying that Iran was not "settled enough politically to make quick decisions on these issues." As a result, Obama emphasized 10 days later, "we have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences."
It’s easy to see how ElBaradei and Obama, among others, have arrived at their conclusion. Iran’s usually bellicose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted on October 29 that "conditions have been prepared for international cooperation in the nuclear field" and his administration is "ready to cooperate." Its nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili expressed a desire on November 8 that the nuclear fuel agreement be "completed as quickly as possible." Armed forces chief of staff General Hassan Firouzabadi too supported the treaty on November 13. So did Iran’s representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh. Iran’s president and his officials understand fully the socioeconomic crisis Iran faces and seek to alleviate it by reconnecting with the West.
Yet while the executive branch of Iran’s government may be at least tentatively on board, Ahmadinejad’s opponents are condemning the nuclear deal. Such a stance serves their own political ambitions. Iran’s Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, a presidential wanna-be, warned the public on October 24 that "Westerners are insisting to go in a direction that suggests cheating." Mir Hossein Mousavi critiqued the negotiations on October 29: "The discussions in Geneva were really surprising … the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined." Not surprisingly, the country’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also cautioned against the deal. Speaking on November 4, the date marking 30 years since the U.S. embassy’s seizure in Tehran and beginning of the diplomat hostage crisis, he noted, "When we carefully look at the situation, we notice that [the United States and its allies] are hiding a dagger behind their back." Not to be outdone, on November 8, another presidential hopeful, Mehdi Karroubi, accused Ahmadinejad’s administration of abandoning national interests by negotiating with the IAEA.
But this may in fact be a good sign. Iran’s top officials appear to be split over the nuclear issue because they are indeed. For the first time, the country’s political leadership is engaging in a very public and agonized debate about the prudence, benefit, and drawback of diffusing a possible nuclear crisis through negotiation with perceived foreign opponents.
There’s a precedent for this — one that suggests Iran’s internal discord might all be part of a productive, if tedious, process. For the last five decades, negotiations with the USSR and then Russia on nuclear arms reduction have followed a similar pattern.
Just look back to two of the biggest arms control breakthroughs of the past century. Negotiations for the Non-Proliferation Treaty lasted 10 years before a document was at last signed in July 1968. Likewise, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) spanned five years before the first treaty was signed in 1974. During often contentious negotiations in May 1972, the Soviets accused the Americans of creating a "strategic imbalance" in favor of the United States. Moreover, the USSR was not even willing "to agree on a common definition of a heavy [ICBM] missile." This pattern of mistrust between the two superpowers continued into the ensuing decades. Most recently in October 1999, the U.S. Congress failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — three years after President Bill Clinton had signed the agreement.
Nor were those negotiations the silver bullets of the type so commonly sought for Iran today. In late November 1974, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger declared SALT I "a breakthrough." But chairman of the House Appropriations Committee George Mahon (D -Tex.) countered within days that "nobody was overwhelmed" by the agreement. Sen. Henry Jackson (D – Was.) went even further, stating he was "astonished" at the pact’s weaknesses and omissions.
Despite its millennia-old diplomatic and military histories, Iran is a novice when it comes to negotiations involving an issue as potentially catastrophic as nuclear power. So it’s no wonder, at a time when the country is already experiencing internal political conflicts on other issues, that the way forward on nukes is anything but obvious. All the branches of government in Iran, not only the executive one, can influence and even reshape the state’s international transactions — much in the way branches of the U.S. and Russian governments did and still do. It is only natural that they would weigh in now with divergent opinions for disparate goals despite the danger of further alienating the P5+1 and IAEA.
Given all this, the world would do well to see patient engagement as its least bad option. There is reason to think that recent comments by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki are more than just Iranian stalling. "We believe that with the continuation of the diplomacy going on now, it is possible to reach an agreement and compromise," Mottaki said on November 16 to reporters from India. "Complementary suggestions and proposals are being sent and received by both sides, and by ElBaradei," he added. That may well be a step in the right direction. So if the United States wishes to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, it is going to take time — just like it did last time.
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