Can the United States Strike a Deal with Iran?

Negotiations with Iran are once more on the international agenda. After an eight-month break, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany -- the so-called P5+1 -- are due to hold a meeting with Iran on 25 February in Kazakhstan. What are the prospects of success? In a nutshell, that would seem to depend more on the climate in Washington than in Tehran. Iran is gesturing that it wants to negotiate, but Washington has not yet signalled any greater flexibility than in the past.
In a major speech in Tehran last Sunday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United States: “Take your guns out of the face of the Iranian nation and I myself will negotiate with you,” he declared. Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador to Paris told French officials that, provided a work plan was agreed, Iran was ready to allow inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit Parchin, a military facility where Iran is suspected of having done work on atomic weapons. Ahmadinejad himself has said repeatedly that Iran was ready to stop enriching uranium to 20% if the international community agreed to supply it instead to the Tehran research reactor for the production of isotopes needed to treat cancer patients.
The only recent encouraging word from the United States was a hint by Vice-President Joe Biden at last week’s Munich security conference that the time may have come for bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded positively to Biden’s offer, although he added that Iran would look for evidence that Biden’s offer was ‘authentic' and not ‘devious’.
The road to a U.S.-Iranian agreement is littered with obstacles -- grave mutual distrust being one of them. There is little optimism among experts that a breakthrough is imminent. For one thing, Iran is almost certain to want to defer any major strategic decision until a new President is elected next June to replace the sharp-tongued Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To strike a deal with Iran, the United States would also need to assure its Arab allies in the Gulf that they would not fall under Iranian hegemony or lose American protection. Guarantees would no doubt have to be given.
Israel, America’s close ally, poses a more substantial obstacle. It is totally opposed to any deal which would allow Iran to enrich uranium, even at the low level of 3.5%. Wanting no challenge to its own formidable nuclear arsenal, Israel’s long-standing aim has been to halt Iran’s nuclear programme altogether. To this end it has assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists and joined the United States in waging cyber warfare against Iranian nuclear facilities. Its belligerent prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has for years been pressing Obama to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme and -- better still -- bring down the Islamic regime altogether.
Faced with these obstacles, it is clear that any U.S. deal with Iran would require careful preparation. Obama would need to mobilize strong domestic support if he is to confront America’s vast array of pro-Israeli forces. They include Congressmen eager to defend Israeli interests at all costs (as was vividly illustrated by the recent Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings), powerful lobbies such as AIPAC, media barons, high-profile Jewish financiers like Sheldon Adelson, a phalanx of neo-con strategists in right-wing think tanks, influential pro-Israelis within the Administration, and many, many others. The cost in political capital of challenging them could be very substantial. Nevertheless, elected for a second term, he now has greater freedom and authority than before.
Obama is due to visit Israel on March 20-21, something he did not do in his first term. This visit will be the first foreign trip of his second term -- in itself a sign of its importance. Although the White House is anxious to play down suggestions that he will announce a major initiative, either on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on Iran, there are issues he cannot avoid. He may, however, choose to raise them in private talks with Israeli leaders rather than in public. His message is expected to be twofold: Israel should not delay in granting statehood to the Palestinians, however painful that choice may be, and it should be careful not to make an eternal enemy of Iran. Both conflicts have the potential to isolate Israel internationally and threaten its long-term interests, if not its actual existence.
In his first term of office, Obama resisted Netanyahu’s pressure to wage war on Iran. This was no more than a semi-success, however, since he managed to blunt Netanyahu’s belligerence only by imposing on Iran a raft of sanctions of unprecedented severity. They have halved Iran’s oil exports, caused its currency to plummet and inflation to gallop, severed its relations with the world’s banks and inflicted severe hardship on its population.
The key question today is this: What are Obama’s intentions? Is he seeking to bring down Iran’s Islamic regime, as Israel would like, or is he simply seeking to limit its nuclear ambitions? If ‘regime change’ is his aim then sanctions will have to be tightened even further and extended indefinitely. But if Obama’s aim is to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme then he must give it at least some of what it wants: such as sanctions relief; acceptance of its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium to a low level for peaceful purposes; recognition of its security interests, of the legitimacy of its Islamic regime born out of the 1979 revolution, and of its place in the region as a major power.
The P5+1, which are due to meet Iran later this month, remain so divided that they are unlikely to improve substantially on their previous miserly offer, which was to provide Iran with some airplane spare parts if it gave up uranium enrichment to 20% -- its trump card. It is the paralysis of Iran’s dealings with the P5+1 that has lent credence to the idea that the best hope of a breakthrough may lie in bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks -- perhaps even a summit meeting between President Obama and Ayatollah Khomeini.
For such a summit to be successful the United States would have to change its approach. Iran’s supreme leader has made clear that Iran will not negotiate under threat of attack. There would have to be give and take. Above all, Iran wants to be treated with respect. This is the challenge facing Obama.
It is worth remembering that there is as yet no evidence whatsoever that Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons. Nor has it developed a reliable delivery system. Instead, it has focussed its efforts on medium-range missiles unable to reach Israel. It has no second strike capability. As President Ahmadinejad stressed during his visit to Cairo last week, Iran has no intention of attacking Israel. Its posture is purely defensive.
If Obama were to act with boldness and vision, he could defuse a nagging problem which has plagued the region for years. It is surely time for the United States to draw Iran into the regional community of nations and put an end to 34 years of unremitting hostility. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global