Seizing the Opportunity with Iran

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media during a news conference in TehranBy Mehrzad Boroujerdi & Louis Kriesberg

At the very time remarkable progress is being made in negotiations with Iran to prevent the emergence of a new nuclear-armed nation in the most militarized and dangerous region in the world, many members of the US Senate are supporting legislation that would irresponsibly undermine this progress. The authors of S. 1881, seemingly without any recognition of the implications of this move, propose new unilateral demands, buttressed by enhanced sanctions and threats toward Iran.

While the Iranian and the US governments have had legitimate, historical grounds for mutual mistrust and grievances since 1979, it would be imprudent for policy makers not also to acknowledge the growing shared interests and concerns of both parties.

It is a fact that the US and Iran have a common enemy—al Qaeda—and the two states also have shared concerns about escalating and spreading disorder in the Middle East. A successful completion of negotiations would avert an Iran armed with nuclear weapons and would open the possibility of normalized relations with a country that is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined in population and landmass. A sustained nuclear deal could also lead to cooperation on other extremely important matters in the region, starting with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Five months into his term, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has proven himself to be a leader who both has the aspiration and the aptitude to engineer a better relationship with Western powers. In 2003, Iran first signed the additional IAEA protocol while Rouhani served as its chief nuclear negotiator. Anyone who doubts his willingness to compromise on Iran’s nuclear program should read his 1,000-page Persian-language book National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, published just a year before he was elected president.

Within, he provides a remarkably detailed insider account of Iranian nuclear strategy, along with a frank discussion of the strategic and tactical thinking and policy disagreements among Iranian political elites. Rouhani, who served for 24 years as secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, laments problematic features of Iranian foreign policy such as its insecurity complex, infinite sloganeering, inability to distinguish tactics from strategy, and the belief that admitting to a mistake is tantamount to acknowledging defeat. His corrective vision outlines an approach that American leaders are more likely to understand and be able to engage. Rouhani may be a cleric, but his formidable policy experience and legal education have taught him that foreign policy is distinct from theology and course correction and flexibility are essential.

President Barack Obama, unlike some senators, appreciates the nuances of dealing with Iran and understands the gravity—and promise—of the current situation. After three decades of enmity, we are finally witnessing some synchronicity between the leaderships in Washington and Tehran. Yet, the US president is being challenged by vested political interests bent on a malicious campaign to torpedo the agreement that the P5+1 grouping of countries put together in Geneva, Switzerland.

Iran and the US have had movements toward better relations at times in the past, short-lived to a significant degree due to US actions and inactions. Significant progress was made during President Bill Clinton’s second term, especially after the August 1997 Iranian presidential election when the reformist Islamic cleric Sayyid Mohammad Khatami was elected. Iran ended support for Hezbollah terror attacks against the US and helped the US overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, allowing passage of humanitarian aid and supporting the creation of the interim Hamid Karzai government.

Alas, President George W. Bush dismissed Iranian cooperation after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and counterproductively called the nation part of an “Axis of Evil,” equating Iran with Iraq and North Korea. This may have seemed bold rhetoric at the time, but it made no strategic sense and destroyed the chances of improving Iranian conduct, especially at a moment when developments in Iraq and elsewhere were making Iran more inclined to work cooperatively with the US. With Iran now a crucial player in the Syria conflict, pointlessly sabotaging relations at this moment of compromise would replay the harmful effects of the “Axis of Evil” declaration.

We must remember that Iran has its own internal politics, and putting excessive demands on a proud nation could backfire. This is a crucial moment; everyone should think hard about the consequences of rash action.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs and Director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program.

Louis Kriesberg is Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies.


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