Can the United States Come to Terms with an Independent, Technologically Sophisticated, and Truly Sovereign Iran?
As negotiations on a final nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 proceed, CCTV’s news talk program, The Heat, invited Hillary earlier this week to offer her perspective on the requirements for successful negotiations, click on the video above or see here. The program also included interview segments with Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran and with former Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian. All three segments are worth watching. We want to highlight here some of Hillary’s more important points.
Hillary notes that, while the chances for diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Tehran are “the best they have been for at least a decade,” gaps between the United States and Iran remain “wide” on key issues. Most importantly, “at this point, the United States doesn’t want Iran to have an industrial-scale nuclear program.”
In Hillary’s view, the “big picture” strategic challenge for the United States in pursuing a diplomatic opening with Iran is recognizing that the Islamic Republic “has sovereign rights, treaty rights, and can be treated like a normal state.” In the context of the nuclear talks, more specifically, the question is whether the United States “can countenance a country that will be strong, independent, and a real nuclear power—not a weapons power, but a real nuclear power.”
On this point, Seyed Mohammad Marandi says that, from an Iranian perspective, “the crux of the problem is the very notion that Western powers are in a position or they have the authority to determine what Iran is allowed to have and is not allowed to have. Iran is not going to accept anything less than its full rights within the framework of international law.”
Hillary describes how, to a considerable degree, Washington has been compelled to drop thirty-five years of rejecting the Islamic Republic’s very legitimacy and to consider cutting some sort of deal with it because of the erosion of U.S. military options vis-à-vis Iran and the strategic failure of American sanctions policy.
–With regard to military options, Hillary observes that “one of the things that has made these negotiations possible in a constructive manner is that, from August 2013, when President Obama declared that the United States would attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there, and then had to walk it back and say, “No, actually I can’t do that, Congress isn’t going to support me, no one around the world is going to support me’—with that, the United States’ ability to credibly threaten the effective use of force greatly diminished. So now you don’t hear President Obama say nearly as much, ‘all options are on the table’—not because the United States doesn’t want to have that [option], but because we don’t have it. We lost it over Syria, and over some of the other failed military interventions over the last decade.”
–While “the idea that sanctions have so crippled the Iranians, and especially the Iranian leadership, that they have come crawling to the table” is popular in American political discourse, this is a false assessment, “put out there to justify a policy that we have put in place for thirty-five years that has not brought down the Islamic Republic, has not overthrown its government, and has not weakened it. We’ve seen Iranian power rise and rise. And I think in some ways the Iranians are letting us have a bit of that narrative, to justify how sanctions have, in a way, let the United States come to the table…It’s a bit the reverse of what the American rhetoric is here, from Washington—it’s not so much that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table; they really brought the Americans to the table.”
Hillary explains that, because of these difficulties, the Obama administration has, over the last two years, determined that the United States might be able to “accept” the Islamic Republic—but “only if it can become part of a pro-American, U.S.-led security and political order in the Middle East.” To join such an order, “states in the region have to give up some elements of sovereign rights—to have a big, functioning military; to have full industrialization—and to have policies that support the United States. So I think what the U.S. team is really trying to test is whether the Islamic Republic of Iran can join this pro-American political and security order”—and, to show that the Islamic Republic could do this, whether Iran “would limit [its] ability to have a civilian nuclear program, according to American wishes.”
Hillary elaborates that, in broader perspective,
“The nuclear deal is almost like, when Nixon and Kissinger first went to China and the relationship opened, we had the Shanghai Communique. At the end of the day, it was just a piece of paper; it means nothing in the broader scheme of what has become a huge relationship between the United States and China. The nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran would essentially serve that function; it would be the equivalent of the Shanghai Communique, to allow for this opening of a relationship between Iran and the United States.
Now the big difference is that the United States wants this relationship on terms that would shore up a pro-American political and security order throughout the region, throughout the Middle East. What Iran wants in that relationship is to maintain its independence, maintain its sovereignty, and to continue to have this ability to rise as an important power. Now it may be possible for those two goals to be met, but it’s going to be extremely difficult.”
This difference in fundamental goals is also manifested in U.S.-Iranian disagreements over sanctions, with the Iranians seeking to end sanctions while the Americans talk about suspending them, with specific triggers for re-imposing them. Hillary explains that the U.S. position grows out of Washington’s greater goal,
“which is to bring Iran into this pro-American political and security order in the region that allows the United States to punish states that don’t go along with U.S. policy preferences—including by the re-imposition or increasing of sanctions on them. So that is a big strategic goal for the United States.
For Iran, though, Iran has not had trade relations with the United States for thirty-five years. Their strategy is, if they can get all U.S. sanctions lifted, great. But the real goal is not this idea that the United States is somehow going to change overnight. But if the United States can at least get out of the way, stand to the side, not enforce those sanctions, waive those sanctions at least every six months, that would allow room for other states that Iran is very focused on—in Europe, in Asia, especially with China, and other countries—to allow them to trade and invest more freely (and without the constant threat of punishment from the United States), to allow them to invest in the Iranian economy. That’s the real economic prize; it’s not to open up U.S. trade or U.S. investment per se.”
Looking ahead to a prospective final agreement, Hillary cautions that negotiators “are going to try to have it as specific as possible, to really hold each side to account—not to build trust, but essentially to build in triggers to punish the other side if something goes wrong. That is not going to be a durable agreement.” Instead of this approach, Hillary argues that
“the most effective agreement that could come to fruition, whether its July 20 (the self-imposed deadline) or after that, will be something more vague. It will be something more along the lines of the Shanghai Communique between the United States and China, which essentially will say that Iran will be recognized as a sovereign state. There may be some interim period for confidence building, but that will be temporary, and after that interim period Iran will be recognized—especially by the United States, but by all of the P5+1—as a normal sovereign state exercising normal sovereign rights, including those for a civilian nuclear program…If they get bogged down in the details of exactly how many centrifuges Iran can run for exactly how much time, that’s a recipe for failure.”
The rest of Hillary’s interview is worth watching, as are the segments with Seyed Mohammad Marandi and Seyed Hossein Mousavian.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett