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Can Washington Reciprocate Iran’s “Constructive Engagement”?

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  | Going to Tehran | September 20th, 2013

As New York prepares for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly next week, the volume of Western media speculation about the prospects for a U.S.-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough is mounting to impressive levels.  Predictably, much of this speculation amounts to little more than wondering how many concessions the Islamic Republic’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is willing and will be able to make, especially on the nuclear issue.

As usual, we prefer looking at facts and authoritative statements of official positions over the speculation of journalists and pundits.  In this spirit, we want to highlight a few passages from President Rohani’s much noted Op-Ed in the Washington Post earlier this week, see here.

Three passages seem especially relevant for understanding Tehran’s position on the nuclear issue.  The first presents Rohani’s definition of “constructive engagement” (emphasis added):

“It is—or should be—counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others.  A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rightsIt means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives.  In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable.  A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.”

The explicit reference to not relinquishing one’s rights is, of course, very much of a piece with Rohani’s statements, during his presidential campaign and since his election, that he is not about to surrender Iran’s right—as a sovereign state and as a non-weapons state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to enrich uranium under international safeguards.  Unfortunately, there is no concrete indication that the Obama administration is prepared to acknowledge this right.  In fact, one can find multiple statements from administration officials over the last five years publicly denying that there is such a right.  (This is, among other things, a legally and intellectually dishonest reading of the NPT.)

The second passage from President Rohani’s Op-Ed that we want to highlight here explains with admirable clarity why the Islamic Republic is not about to compromise its right to safeguarded enrichment (again, emphasis added):

“We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East.  At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world.  The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program.  To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power 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.”

President Rohani goes on to note, “Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”  Indeed.  Unfortunately, it remains far from clear that the Obama administration understands how tightly the matter of Iran’s nuclear rights is linked to fundamental questions of identity (like independence and control of the country’s energy resources) for Iranians who supported Imam Khomeini’s revolution and continue to support the political order it produced.

The third passage from President Rohani’s Op-Ed that we want to highlight discusses the requirements for diplomatic progress (yet again, emphasis added):

“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.  Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think—and talk—about how to make things better.  To do that, 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.  This is the essence of my approach to constructive interaction.”

President Rohani certainly is not the first Iranian leader to want the United States to clarify its ultimate intentions vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.  Unfortunately, it remains far from clear that the Obama administration is or will be prepared to lay out a clear and positive end game for nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic—for this would require the United States to acknowledge Iran’s aforementioned right to safeguarded enrichment as an essential pillar of any negotiated solution to the nuclear issue.

So, going into UNGA next week and looking beyond UNGA to renewed nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, the relevant question is not how much is Iran’s leadership prepared to concede on the nuclear issue.  Rather, the relevant question is whether Washington is prepared to abandon a strategic approach to the Middle East that has done profound damage to America’s own position in this vital region—in no small part, by rendering productive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic impossible.

This was very much the theme of an interview that our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran, gave earlier this week to Russia Today, see here.  We append the interview, titled “Iran’s position strengthening while US in decline,” below, along with Russia Today’s editorial precede:

“Iran’s vow to never develop nuclear arms appeared to be an olive branch extended America’s way.  But it is Washington, and not Tehran who needs all the friends it can get these days, Professor Seyed Mohhamad Marandi from the University of Tehran told RT.

On Wednesday, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani said of the Islamic Republic, ‘under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.’

Underscoring Rouhani’s concerted efforts to kick start negotiations over its controversial uranium enrichment program with the West, US President Barack Obama and Rouhani exchanged letters.  This followed recent elections in Iran and the two leaders may meet on the margins of the UN general assembly next week.  Rouhani, who took office in August, also ordered the release of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer, and a number of other political prisoners on the eve of a visit to the United Nations.

The White House has thus far reacted positively towards these overtures, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying there is an opportunity for diplomacy when it comes to the issues that have presented challenges to the United States and our allies with regards to Iran.

Professor Marandi says that while the onus has been put on Tehran to return to the Western fold, it is Washington who needs Iran to help fix the mess it’s made in the region.

RTIran has always said that it would not construct nuclear weapons.  So why the apparently enthusiastic reaction from the US now?

Seyed Mohhamad Marandi:  It’s hard to say, it really should be asked why the United States didn’t respond earlier because this is what the Iranians have been saying all along.  But still I think the Iranians are quite willing to see if the apparent enthusiasm will lead to any change in US policy; that’s the important thing.  What the Iranians are doing right now is saying ‘look, we are going to preserve our sovereign rights as an independent country, we will continue with our peaceful nuclear program, we’ve never disregarded international law, there’s no evidence of that, but we are willing to create a new favorable environment for negotiations.’  So basically what the Iranians have done is put the ball firmly in the American’s court, where it’s been for quite a while, but they’re doing this basically for the international community to see, and it’s now for the United States to respond.

So far the United States has responded negatively.  As soon as Mr Rouhani became president [Washington] slapped on new sanctions, now they are taking a building that is linked to the Iranian community in the United States.  These are not positive signs, so the Iranians are waiting to see over the next few days and weeks whether the United States is going to rethink its previously irrational approach toward Iran.

RT: You mentioned peaceful energy purposes.  Will the US ever accept that?

SMM:  That’s up to the United States.  Iranians are not going to wait for US acceptance.  The Iranian position has been strengthened over the past few months, recent Iranian elections have shown Iran’s strength; the high turnout has shown there is a great deal of legitimacy in the Iranian electoral process.  The reason why some of these people in prison were released was not because of any human rights work that they did, but because after the previous elections (which they deemed fraudulent), they were helping to create unrest in the country.  But after this election, President Rouhani and many reformists and people from all backgrounds in the political establishment have said that there never was fraud and that basically this has strengthened Iran’s position.  Right now, while the rest of the region is in uproar and there’s increasing instability thanks to the United States, Iran is the only country that is completely stable and with a high turnout in the political process in the country.

On the other hand the United States has isolated itself by threatening Syria; the international community has moved against the United States, and even within the United States Obama and the political establishment has lost popularity and support over their proposed aggression against Syria.  So Iran feels that its position is much stronger today, and America’s position is much weaker.

RT: Could Iran’s new efforts to improve relations with the West be seen as a sign that sanctions have actually worked?

SMM:  Sanctions are working in the sense that some people have died because of a lack of medicine because Americans have basically tried to shut down the Iranian central bank, along with their allies.  But that has created anger among Iranians.  But at the same time, President Rouhani has said specifically that Iran is very willing to resolve questions that exist with regards to the Iranian nuclear program in the West as long as Iran’s rights are preserved.  But when the United States threatens countries, invades countries and imposes sanctions on ordinary Iranians, creating a lack of medicine for cancer patients for example, then that does not help resolve the situation.  The Iranians are not going to kneel to the United States.  Iran is a sovereign and independent country, that’s what the revolution was about 34 years ago, for Iran to gain its independence and overcome American hegemony.  It’s not a client regime like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Jordan.  So if the United States comes to respect Iran, then we can have rapprochement.  The United States needs Iran, because thanks to its own policies, its destabilized the whole region, the United States has allowed Al-Qaeda to thrive through Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other oil rich dictatorships.  In order to salvage the situation, it needs a strong, powerful, secure and stable country like Iran to help resolve the current mess that they’ve created in the region.”

We will be spending time in New York over the next week, monitoring developments and meeting with senior members of the Islamic Republic’s UNGA delegation.  Whatever happens, it is likely to be an interesting—and potentially very revealing—week.

September 21, 2013 - Posted by | Militarism, Timeless or most popular | , ,

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