As we move toward a new round of nuclear talks in Geneva this week between Iran and the P5+1, it is important to look soberly at each side’s approach to renewed nuclear diplomacy and what that implies about the prospects for real diplomatic progress.
On the Iranian side, the public diplomacy carried out by President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during their visits to New York for the United Nations General Assembly—along with Zarif’s meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the other P5+1 foreign ministers and Rohani’s fifteen-minute phone conversation with President Obama—was exceptional. Moreover, conversations with Iranian officials in New York during Rohani and Zarif’s visits there and in Tehran during the first week of October suggest that the Iranian side will come to the Geneva talks proactively prepared with proposals for resolving the nuclear issue within a finite period.
It is far less clear, however, that the Obama administration is prepared to do anything of real seriousness and substance to facilitate diplomatic progress. American elites—including Obama administration policymakers—are still talking about “productive diplomacy” with Iran primarily in terms of extracting major concessions from the Islamic Republic.
On the nuclear issue, for example, President Rohani and Dr. Zarif have articulated a model for resolving the nuclear issue whereby the United States and the West would recognize Iran’s nuclear rights in exchange for greater transparency surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities (e.g., the Islamic Republic could ratify and implement the Additional Protocol to the NPT and accept stricter notification requirements regarding new nuclear initiatives). But Obama administration officials and many pundits are arguing, in effect, that “transparency is not enough.”
–They are arguing that Washington must become, in effect, the co-manager of Iran’s nuclear program, determining which Iranian nuclear facilities must be closed and which might be allowed to remain opening, determining not how many additional centrifuges Iran might be allowed to install in the future but how many centrifuges it must dismantle to satisfy the United States and Israel.
–And, as we have pointed out for many months (and which American pundits themselves are now finally noticing), the Obama will face enormous and largely self-inflicted legal difficulties in lifting or modifying U.S. sanctions to encourage and support diplomatic progress on the nuclear issue. During Obama’s presidency, many U.S. sanctions that started out as executive order sanctions have been written into law, with conditions for their removal that go well beyond progress on the nuclear issue. These conditions include requirements that Tehran cut its ties to groups like Hizballah that the United States foolishly designates as terrorist organizations and effectively transform the Islamic Republic into a secular liberal republic.
And, of course, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s self-inflicted debacle over its declared intention to attack the Syrian government following the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21, the United States continues to insist—as Obama himself declared in his UN General Assembly address—that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave office before any political process aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict can unfold.
America’s Middle East policy, it seems, remains stuck in fantasy land.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett