Listening to Iran

I’ve been developing the case for listening to what the Iranians are saying recently, and I think the aftermath of the recent Geneva talks are a perfect example. The P5+1 expected an up or down response to their proposal, a proposal that offered significant incentives — including a very serious American gesture of goodwill — in return for Iran freezing its nuclear enrichment program. In that context, the actual Iranian response, which Hurriyet got a copy of, is of course disappointing. So off we go for another round of sanctions, neither guaranteed to be passed nor likely to be very stiff.

But if you try to imagine things from Tehran’s perspective, and then listen to what the Iranians are actually saying, this passage from the Iranian response takes on added significance:

The Islamic Republic of Iran with good will, a constructive approach and a strategic determination to continued negotiations has again carefully considered views as expressed in the Geneva meeting to produce a comprehensive agreement for cooperation, one which can address our common concerns and be based on our collective obligations and set an agenda for consulting all interested parties in order to reach an acceptable outcome.

Here’s a thought. Iran takes a look at the strategic environment and decides things will never be more favorable than they are now. America is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the price of oil is offsetting whatever watered-down sanctions get pushed through the UN Security Council, and the balance of power in the Gulf and Middle East has shifted in its direction.What’s more, if the Iranians really wanted to get the West and the UNSC off their backs, they would simply throw open their enrichment program to IAEA inspectors.

But contrary to the “Iranian menace” storyline, Iran remains a global lightweight whose only real ability to cause pain rests in its control over global oil supplies and the asymmetric leverage it wields through its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. And while it has increased its relative influence in the region, the only real bargaining chip it has vis à vis the West is its nuclear program. That chip would become worthless, however, if it were proven to be an NPT-compliant civilian program. So the Iranians, like Saddam Hussein before the Iraq War and the Israelis for the past forty-odd years, are maintaining a strategic ambiguity regarding their weaponization intentions, denying that they have any but also denying any effort to verify their claims.

In essence, according to this line of reasoning, the Iranians are trying to cash in their chips — their current strategic advantage and the nuclear program — for the big payoff: a grand bargain with the West. It’s an all or nothing position that’s diametrically opposed to the one-off the West is proposing. The real carrot for Iran isn’t the package of economic incentives being offered because, sooner or later, sanctions or no sanctions, oil and gas reserves get developed, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s not the case. The real carrot for Iran is a legitimate, secure leadership role in the political order of the Middle East.

While that might seem at first glance like a bad outcome, consider this: By legitimizing Iran’s regional influence, we create a political field in which it can be contained. And as the comic sage of UN sanctions have demonstrated, in the age of globalization, political containment is far more practical than economic isolation.

So, yes, the Iranians haven’t really responded to our offer. But we haven’t responded to theirs, either.

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