How Tehran is outflanking Obama / We have failed to understand Iran´s motives (NEW YORK DAILY NEWS OP-ED) BY MICHAEL SINGH 05/30/12)
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Last week’s talks in Baghdad between Iran and the P5-plus-1 — the
United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — yielded
no agreement. Paradoxically, however, both Washington and Tehran are
likely to view the negotiations as successful, but for vastly
There is an interest that both Iran and the United States hold in
common: staving off military action, whether by the U.S. or Israel.
From there, however, U.S. and Iranian motivations diverge;
understanding this divergence is key to understanding why the talks
thus far have failed.
Iranian officials publicly dismiss but likely privately worry about
the consequences of war, while U.S. officials often seem more worried
about the consequences of military action than about the Iranian
nuclear program a strike would be designed to destroy.
Indeed, for many within the United States and other P5
-plus-1 countries, the mere fact of “intensive” talks about Iran’s
nuclear program is itself a success. There is a narrative, espoused
by then-candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign,
that at the root of the Iran nuclear crisis is U.S.-Iran conflict,
and that the root cause of that conflict is mistrust.
As a candidate, Obama pledged to meet personally with Iranian leaders
and predicted that
ians “would start changing their behavior if they started seeing that
they had some incentives to do so.” And as President, in his famous
June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo, Obama spoke of the need to “overcome
decades of mistrust.”
In this narrative, talks are successful insofar as they end not in
collapse but in a sustained negotiating process — that is, more talks.
For Iran, meanwhile, there is little indication that the talks are
aimed at building confidence or opening up the broader possibility of
U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Indeed, there is ample evidence that the
Iranian regime views normal relations with the United States as
undesirable, even threatening, while it views a nuclear weapons
capability as strategically vital.
Giving up the latter for the former would make little sense to Tehran.
Prolonging the talks serves a threefold purpose for Iran beyond
merely buying time or delaying an attack: first, to enhance Iranian
prestige by sitting as co
-equal with the world’s great powers and discussing the great
regional and global issues of the day; second, to secure tacit
acceptance of nuclear advances once deemed unacceptable and third, to
gain relief from sanctions without making major concessions.
In this round, Iran appears to have made progress toward the first
and second goals, but not the third. Regarding the first, Iran
reportedly included in its proposals items relating to Syria and
other regional issues — clearly legitimizing its role as a regional
Regarding the second, Iran’s low-level uranium enrichment appears off
the table for discussion, and Western analysts now frequently assert
that insisting on the full suspension of enrichment and reprocessing
by Iran is “unrealistic,” even though it is called for in a series of
UN Security Council resolutions.
The focus instead is now on Iran’s 20% enrichment. While the recent
discovery of 27%-enriched uranium at Iran’s Fordo facility may have
an innocent explanation, it would come as little surprise were Iran
to pocket the P5 -plus-1 concessions and move the goalposts once
While Iran failed to meet its third likely objective — sanctions
relief — it has little reason to rush. It is true that oil sanctions
have had a harmful effect on the Iranian economy, but history
suggests that authoritarian regimes are willing to allow their people
to endure severe hardship for the furtherance of the regimes’ own
For any negotiation to succeed, one must begin by understanding the
interests of the other side. The fundamental bargain offered by the
U.S. asks Iran to trade something it apparently values enormously —
the ability to produce nuclear weapons — for something in which it
has no demonstrable interest and likely regards as threatening
, closer ties with the West.
To change this and give negotiations a chance of succeeding, Iran
must be presented with a different bargain: end its nuclear weapons
work or face devastating consequences. Iran must be convinced that
continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability will threaten,
rather than ensure, the regime’s ultimate survival, and that talks
are not a substitute for but a complement to a broader strategy,
which includes ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran and bolstering
the credibility of the U.S. military option.
The true failure of Baghdad and previous rounds of talks is not the
failure to reach an agreement, but the failure to correctly apprehend
Iranian ambitions and implement a strategy to counter them.
Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the
National Security Council under President George W. Bush. (©
Copyright 2012 NYDailyNews.com. 05/30/12)
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