What Washington Has Learned From Negotiating With Iran—And What It Still Needs to Learn

The National Interest has published our latest piece, co-authored with the University of Tehran’s Seyed Mohammad Marandi, titled “What Has America Learned from Negotiating With Iran?” To read it, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on The National Interest Web site.

What Has America Learned From Negotiating With Iran?

Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett, and Seyed Mohammad Marandi  

While negotiators from Iran, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 will not meet their July 20 target for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, it is clear they won’t walk away from the table in a huff.  So, as the parties prepare to continue the process, what has America learned from negotiating with Iran, and what does it still need to learn to close a final deal?

One thing Washington has learned is that the Islamic Republic is deeply committed to protecting Iran’s independence.  Thirty-five years ago, Iran’s current political order was born of a revolution promising Iranians to end subordination of their country’s foreign policy to the dictates of outside powers—especially the United States.  Since then, the Islamic Republic has worked hard to keep that promise—for example, by defending Iran against a U.S.-backed, eight-year war of aggression by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and fending off a steady stream of U.S. and Israeli covert attacks, economic warfare and threats of overt military action.

On nuclear matters, the Islamic Republic’s commitment to protecting Iranian independence focuses on the proposition that Iran has a sovereign right, recognized in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium indigenously under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.  The Islamic Republic terminated the purely weapons-related aspects of the U.S.-supplied nuclear program it inherited from the last shah, going so far as to reconfigure the Tehran Research Reactor—which, when transferred by the United States in the 1960s, only ran on fuel enriched to weapons-grade levels (over 90 percent)—to use fuel enriched to just below 20 percent.

But the Islamic Republic has also been determined to develop a range of civil nuclear capabilities, including indigenous enrichment for peaceful purposes.  It won’t surrender Iran’s right to do so—even in the face of massive U.S. and Western pressure and sanctions.  Beyond sovereignty and practical needs, Iranian policy makers judge that appeasing Washington on the issue will simply lead to more aggressive U.S. demands and pressure on other disputes.

America may have begun to recognize that respecting Iranian independence is key to diplomatic progress.  For over a decade, Washington has insisted—contrary to how the vast majority of states read the NPT and to America’s own publicly stated view during the Treaty’s early years—that Iran has no right to enrich.  Even today, while Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledges Iran’s right to a “peaceful nuclear program,” the United States refuses to acknowledge that this includes a right to safeguarded enrichment.

However, when Washington has moved, in practical ways, to accept safeguarded Iranian enrichment, Tehran has responded positively.  In the Joint Plan of Action agreed last November, America and its British and French partners dropped their longstanding demands that Iran cease all enrichment-related activities before substantial diplomatic progress would be possible.  Furthermore, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 agreed that a final deal would encompass an Iranian enrichment program.  In return, Tehran made multiple commitments to diminish what America and its Western partners portray as the proliferation risks of Iran’s nuclear activities.  These confidence-building measures—which, the IAEA reports, Iran has scrupulously implemented—include stopping enrichment at the near-20 percent level needed for TRR fuel, converting part of its near-20 percent stockpile to oxide form and diluting fissile-isotope purity in the rest, freezing its centrifuge infrastructure and accepting IAEA monitoring well beyond NPT requirements.

While U.S. officials have started to grasp the importance of respecting Iran’s independence, they have yet to draw this insight’s full implications—the main reason a final deal isn’t at hand.

America and its Western partners continue demanding that Iran dismantle most of its safeguarded centrifuge infrastructure—a demand with no basis in the NPT or any other legal instrument and which contributes nothing to Western powers’ purported nonproliferation goals.  Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has made clear that, in a final deal, Iran could agree to cap temporarily the scope and level of its enrichment activities and to operate its centrifuges in ways rendering alleged scenarios of rapid “breakout” implausible (e.g., no stockpiling of low-enriched uranium).

Unfortunately, Western demands for dismantlement appear grounded in a determination that Tehran must “surrender” in a final deal—to forego sustainable indigenous enrichment capabilities and instead rely on foreign fuel suppliers (especially Russia).  If Western powers insist that Iran compromise its sovereign rights, there will be no final deal, no matter how long talks are extended.

The United States also still needs to learn—however incomprehensible this may seem to some—that the Islamic Republic is, in fact, a legitimate order for the overwhelming majority of Iranians living inside their country.

Besides restoring Iranian independence, the revolution that produced the Islamic Republic promised Iranians to replace externally imposed autocracy with an indigenously created system, grounded in participatory Islamist governance.  For thirty-five years, this is what the Islamic Republic has offered Iranians the chance to build.  With all its flaws, the Islamic Republic has delivered for its people in important ways, including impressive (and progressive) developmental outcomes in poverty alleviation, educational access, health-care delivery, scientific and technological advancement, and improving the status of women—despite decades of war, threats of war, and intensifying sanctions.

Still, many American elites persist in depicting the Islamic Republic as a system so despised by its own people as to be chronically in danger of overthrow—a fantasy that has driven Western enthusiasm and not-so-tacit support for regime change in Iran.  Beyond its falsity, this misapprehension of reality continues to warp the Western approach to nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.  Beyond dictating the “acceptable” scope of Iran’s indigenous capabilities, Western powers want the limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in a final deal to apply for well over a decade.  Conversations with Western officials indicate that this demand—also with no basis in the NPT or any other legal instrument—is motivated by assessments that the Islamic Republic will not last for more than ten years.  By insisting on a more-than-ten-year term, Western powers are calculating that, when a final deal expires, Iran will have a political order less committed to strategic independence.

This is both foolhardy and reckless.  The Islamic Republic is not about to disappear—and no truly legitimate Iranian government will compromise what the vast majority of Iranians see as their nation’s sovereign rights.

When the United States fully understands that, the nuclear issue will almost resolve itself.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


37 Responses to “What Washington Has Learned From Negotiating With Iran—And What It Still Needs to Learn”

  1. Karl.. says:

    Look what the arabs nations do when Israel invade Gaza, go figure how the same party would react if IRan would be attacked. Not surprising though.

  2. Rehmat says:

    Like Rabbi Michael Lerner, most American leaders prefer to live in self-denial.

    Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote on July 16, 2014: “Hamas is “objectively even if not subjectively” the best friend of the Israeli settlers, right-wing Israeli extremists, and the Netanyahu government.“


  3. fyi says:

    Iranian says:

    July 18, 2014 at 4:28 am

    I think the situation is more analogous to this case:


  4. Ataune says:

    A very well written article. I specifically agree with your assessment that the political order in Iran is here to stay since it has the backing of the population. One caveat though, I don’t see the American current strategy based on an evaluation of near-term uncertain stability of the political system in Iran, although they might have or express such hope in private conversation. American move looks more to me like a need for a temporary cool-down or accommodation with the strategic regional power sitting on top of the Iranian plateau rather than fighting three different regional cold wars: Russian, Asian and Middle-Eastern.

  5. James Canning says:

    I continue to think the P5+1 will accept Iran’s fueling Iranian nuclear power plants. Iran’s contract for Russian fueling of initial Bushehr plant expires next year.

  6. James Canning says:

    Who are the “Western officials” who claim to believe the Iranian government will collapse within the next ten years? That is not the view of William Hague, the recently-retired British foreign Secretary.

  7. Smith says:

    One certainly hopes so. Though my experience says, there are few and far in between who really understand the core ailment of Iranian nation.

    Unfortunately the opposition to thinking and pondering is too strong. Not only in Iran but in all third world countries. Thinking is considered a crime, a sin or even worse a heresy. This despite the fact that Quran repeatedly invites humans to think and to ponder. But then there are all kinds of monafiq who never truly accepted God and His commands/invitations. The kind of people for whom it is more important to use their limited thinking faculties to control the fertile womb and use their miniscule imagination to prevent teenage girls from wearing tight socks, rather than to dedicate themselves to make Iran self sufficient in food and medicine.

  8. Smith says:

    fyi says:
    July 16, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Please see:

    Smith says:
    July 18, 2014 at 12:56 pm

  9. fyi says:


    A Russian view point:


    The comments are interesting in that they foresee no resolution of the Iranian Nuclear Crisis for years to come…

  10. Smith says:

    fyi says:
    July 18, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Another description of that sad event: http://www.oldpilot.ir/2007/06/_130_2.php

  11. James Canning says:

    Is “strategic independence” to some extent code for “being unfriendly toward Israel”?

  12. Jay says:

    fyi says:
    July 18, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Interesting. Although I would be cautious since Arbatov received a lot of NGO money in Russia.

  13. Smith says:

    fyi says:
    July 18, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Nice one. But I think US will choose enmity with Iran and the American commitment to destruction of IR over any other thing including the situation in Ukraine. US is now in war with Islam and Russia is not an important component of this war. Iran is. So US will even apologize to Putin if ever it came to that, but will maintain its current course to destroy Iran.

  14. Smith says:

    fyi says:
    July 18, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Continued from last comment:

    In fact US has already done this before. They had even made a big stupid red button and begged Russia to reset it and forgive them when US needed Russia to put more sanctions on Iran.

    During the cold war, they teemed up with the Soviet client state of Saddam’s Iraq to destroy Iran, resulting in a war that remained as the only conflict in cold war in which both Soviet and Western blocks were supporting the same side of the conflict while Iran was standing alone. US will teem up with anyone, Russia, China, Saudi, Devil etc in order to destroy Iran. The Iranian revolution really burned their koons so badly that they still are not ready to let it go.

  15. Smith says:

    How does it feel to shoot down a civilian airliner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50sYFs6p7lk#t=567

    Fast forward to 9:27. See for yourself how Americans were ecstatic and rejoicing over the shoot down of a civilian airliner.

  16. Smith says:

    Just a word of warning about the video link: except the real from the ship the rest is the classic American propaganda designed to poison the minds. They did it on purpose to send a message to Imam at the time.

  17. Smith says:

    Typo correction:

    … video link: except the real FOOTAGE

  18. James Canning says:

    Nathan Thrall has a fine opinion piece in the New York Times today: “How the West chose war in Gaza”.

  19. James Canning says:

    “The neocons have always been committed to protecting Israel and enabling its oppression of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza”.
    – – Robert Parry, writing July 17th (Consortium News): “The human price of neocon havoc”

  20. James Canning says:


    Rabbi Michael Lerner is very much aware of the violent origins of the State of Israel. He actually is a good source for the conspiracy within the Jewish community in the US to enable the idiotic US invasion of Iraq to be launched.

  21. fyi says:

    Smith says:

    July 18, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Yes, I was there myself, in Chicago, Americans were pointing to 4-th of July fireworks and calling it the Iranian Airliner.

    As I said before, the fly-over-America hates Islam and specially hates Iran.

  22. fyi says:

    Smith says:

    July 18, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    A few days later, while driving through Ohio, I listened to the car radio where this middle class Euro-American woman – active in her local school system – was suggesting that Iranians had placed cadavers inside the air plane and had sent it to be shot down by US to make US look bad.


    And then they complain about Arabs dancing upon learning of the attack on US in 9/11 – it is a wonder that Iranians were not.

  23. fyi says:

    James Canning:

    The strategy of selling geopolitical protection – a la the Godfather Trilogy – has failed in the Persian Gulf.

    The safety and accessibility of the oil wells of the Persian Gulf can no longer be guaranteed by the Axis Powers.

    The Axis Powers needed to worry about Iranian retaliation, now there is not state or organized force between those oil well and ISIS or any other extremists upstart – except Islamic Republic of Iran – the country they have despoiled despised and humiliated for decades.

    The promissory notes that the United States especially had issued to India, Korea, Japan, China and others regarding their safe access to energy of the Persian Gulf has turned out to be worthless.

    At any given moment a war may be initiated by Axis Powers in the Persian Gulf against Iran and the power to safeguard those oil wells does not exist. That is the current posture of NATO – US, UK, France are there in the Persian Gulf ready to go to war.

    Iran can expect no security from US, EU, Russia, and China; her security is not predicated on good behavior in nuclear negotiations or anywhere else.

    If you think otherwise, I would respectfully request to write in detail how that could be.

    For myself, having reluctantly moved to the position of Mr. Richard Hack, I am led to believe that a non-nuclear-armed Iran will recapitulate the Battle of Chaldiran.

  24. fyi says:


    ISIS being very excellent Muslims, upholding Islamic Law:


  25. fyi says:


    ISIS being very excellent Muslims, upholding Islamic Law:


    All Islamic, All of the Time

  26. Kooshy says:

    Why Iran Believes the Militant Group ISIS Is an American Plot | TIME

    Is good and a change to see how desperately American feel they have to defend themselves against published accounts. The fact that they had to respond (In their flagship weekly)shows how fast the west is losing the media battle and the sole media power they once has

  27. Karl.. says:

    Stephen Cohen about downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

  28. fyi says:


    Dr. Cordesman’s comments:


    Basically, promoting Saudi-Arabia-is-our-true-friend line.

  29. Karl.. says:

    Speaking on Russia, isnt it time for them to stop being fooled by US/west as the latter show over and over again anti-russian moves?

    Reaching out to Iran could be one such step. Or is that immature at this time? Time is not there yet?

  30. fyi says:

    Karl.. says:

    July 19, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Axis Powers have banned new financing of the Russian Energy companies.

    This will continue in an analogous manner to the Iranian sanctions.

    We will revisit this 15 years from now.

    As for Russia’s Iran policy, they are not there yet to substantially change course.

  31. Smith says:

    fyi says:
    July 18, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Horrible. Then these blood thirsty lot talk about “human rights”, “democracy” and bombing people to “freedom”. It is so wonderful that one after the other all curtains are falling for the world to see their real scary faces.

  32. Smith says:

    fyi says:
    July 19, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    One positive thing that is coming out of this US (re-)alliance with Qaeda, Taliban and Isis is is the bankruptcy of American ideology for the world. They knowingly support the most despicable among the community of 1.5 billion Muslims in order to keep waging their war against Islam. It would be as if Iran or any other country support the most despicable filth among the Christians. They knowingly side with scum of the earth states like Saudi and Qatar and even provide these American democracies and beacon of American human rights, with the most sophisticated weaponry. One is known by the company of friends he keeps. And we all know who are America’s friends.

  33. Smith says:

    Karl.. says:
    July 19, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Do not underestimate Russian hubris either. This attitude of hungry Iranians always looking forward to suckle the Russian nipple or the American nipple, or British nipple or etc etc should be discouraged. Great nations must rise up to provide for their own needs. Staring with begging eyes at the hands of Russians or others is not a solution.

  34. fyi says:


    Mrs. Maloney lamenting the fact that Iranians are declining the generous offer from P5+1:


  35. James Canning says:


    I think you are a bit delusional about “Axis Powers” and a supposed plot to “destroy” Iran even if Iran makes a deal wit P5+1.

    Again, Nato will happily observe an Iran growing quickly in wealth and power, if Iran makes the deal.