While “confidence-building” is the most important factor in the course of any nuclear negotiations which hope to succeed between Iran and the P5+1 group (the permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, Russia, China, Britain, France – plus Germany), the United States is talking about a new round of coercive sanctions against Iran. The US objective in continuing the “sanctions for negotiations” policy aims at weakening the “nuclear consensus” inside Iran. However, if successful, this policy would have the reverse result, since the unraveling of the nuclear consensus that now exists within Iran would halt any progress on the diplomatic front.
For Iran, maintaining the capacity for “independent uranium enrichment” on its own soil means acquisition of a nuclear “capability.” This endeavor is based on an important strategic objective around which all political blocs agree: the acceptance of Iran as a “nuclear state” by world powers. This consensus is a powerful, unassailable domestic reality that cannot be reversed. No political group in Iran today, reformist or otherwise, would dream of demanding the suspension of uranium enrichment.
Against the grain of this consensus, the US has sought the suspension of any uranium enrichment capacity by Iran. This inflexible policy differs from the views held by the other P5+1 countries, namely the EU trio (France, German, and the Britain), Russia, and China. These powers have gradually come to agree with Iran’s right to enrichment on its native soil. In the Geneva negotiations last December, this right was implicitly accepted by all parties, including by the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted just before the negotiations got under way.
Despite this, the US seems bent on trying to overturn that consensus both internationally and within Iran.
US policy toward Iran
The US is pursuing a three-pronged policy.
First, it seeks to impose coercive economic sanctions. This policy is aimed at increasing economic pressure on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, seeking thereby to expose its inefficiency in handling Iran’s everyday economic issues. Under this policy, the US hopes that economic turmoil will split the political elite from the public. Then, under heavy domestic pressure, the government will be forced to change its tough nuclear policy in order to have the punitive sanctions lifted.
Second, the US is mounting international pressure on Iran, pressing its allies and others to avoid expanding relations. This aspect of the policy aims at enhancing the perception of Iran’s isolation inside the country. Here, too, the hope is that the government will be forced to change its nuclear policy in order not to sacrifice Iran’s growing regional and global ties.
Third, by periodically announcing the possibility of a military threat, the US hopes to split Iranian public opinion by creating a sense of imminent attack by the US and/or Israel, thus creating pressure against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s nuclear stance in order to avoid war.
Why US approach won't change Iran
The problem with this US approach is that it will not change Iran’s nuclear position.
First, despite President Obama’s claim that sanctions will only target the Iranian government, they will ultimately damage the Iranian people. That in turn will not weaken, but empower the hand of the government. No critics of Ahmadinejad will be able to pressure him to backpedal on the national priority of a nuclear program, because he will be able to blame Iran’s economic troubles on the US.
Second, international pressure to isolate Iran has already backfired from the American standpoint, resulting in the greater consolidation of, rather than a split of, political elites on the nuclear issue.
All political factions understand that Iran’s future depends on deeper engagement with the outside world, and they must thereby demonstrate a unity of national interest. A vivid example is the appointment of moderate Ali-Akbar Salehi as Iran’s acting foreign minister. There could be no clearer signal to the West ahead of the Istanbul negotiations that the Iranian people, whatever their other disagreements, speak with one voice on the nuclear issue.
Third, with respect to a military strike, the Iranian public is by now well versed both on the limited military effects of an attack as well as on the limitations of American public opinion. They know that a military attack would only set back Iran’s program while provoking Iran’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and pushing it toward a concerted effort for weaponization. With the US mired in Afghanistan, after having fought the war in Iraq, the Iranian public knows the American public is in no mood for yet another war.
Consequently, there are few in Iran who believe the US military threat is serious in the near future. And if it were, any foreign threat would unite Iranians even more so.
A win-win solution
Given the realities I have described, the only viable option is to move toward a win-win solution that satisfies the interests of both sides in this standoff. Under this scenario, the US would accept the right of Iran to enrich uranium on its soil (win for Iran), and Iran would give all necessary guarantees to ensure that its nuclear program does not harbor military objectives (win for the United States). As has been recently stressed by President Ahmadinejad, this policy will be the basis of negotiations in Istanbul.
The main prerequisite for arriving at this win-win solution is confidence-building between Iran and the United States. The US must understand that sanctions will only engender distrust in negotiations, while not weakening domestic consensus on Iran’s aspiration to enrich uranium on its own soil.
The unity of Iranians on the country’s nuclear policy should not be seen as something the US ought to break up. It is, in fact, the only basis for a negotiated solution. As the experience of the post-election turmoil suggested last year, a divided Iran would not negotiate with the US at all.
Kayhan Barzegar is a faculty member at the Science and Research Campus, Islamic Azad University, Iran, and an associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is also a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research (CSR) and the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.