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Pure Onsense

Nuclear Negotiations

Scott Zuke

(3/2014) Iran celebrated the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution last month with massive rallies chanting "Death to America!" "Death to Obama!," "Death to Kerry!," "Death to Sherman!" (Wendy Sherman, the United States' lead nuclear negotiator), and of course, "Death to Israel!" It would be enough to hurt one's feelings, except that it's hard to think anymore that the Iranian peoples' hearts are really in it. Since the election of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani last June, U.S.-Iranian relations have steadily, if cautiously, begun to thaw. While Rouhani hasn't yet done anything to significantly alter Iran's foreign or domestic policy, he has introduced a softer tone in his rhetoric that has restored hope for diplomacy and hushed those who, not long ago, were calling for preemptive military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites.

The United States and other leading nations signed a temporary deal with Iran in November to freeze some of its nuclear development in exchange for a loosening of economic sanctions. The latest round of talks, which began on February 18, aim to build upon that success to achieve a comprehensive, long-term deal to assure the West that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear bomb. Screaming "Death to whomever" is one thing, but doing so while possessing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles is quite another, so the assurances have to be pretty convincing.

At the same time, however, Tehran continues to vehemently assert its right to advance nuclear technology for the peaceful purpose of generating power. There are three important things to know about Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy production that are rarely reported. First, Iran does have a legitimate claim for needing nuclear plants. Like other developing nations it's experiencing a boom in energy demand, but was ranked 102nd out of 124 nations for energy infrastructure and security in a recent report by the World Economic Forum. Former Iranian Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian says this is an argument in favor of diversifying Iran's energy sources, nuclear or otherwise, and adds that other oil-rich countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have announced plans to build new nuclear plants to meet energy demand.

Second, nuclear energy and technology has become an object of national pride in Iran. The symbol for the atom even appears on its currency, along with a quote attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: "Men from the land of Persia will attain scientific knowledge even if it is as far as the Pleiades." Attempts by outsiders to stand in the way of Iran's technological advances are taken about as well as they would be in the United States--that is, as an intolerable insult against national sovereignty. Add to that a sting of hypocrisy, since most of the nations in the negotiations, neighbors Pakistan and India, and even arch-rival Israel, are nuclear powers.

Third, it's not at all clear whether Iran has made up its mind about pursuing a nuclear bomb, and there are sharp internal differences of opinion on the matter. As Iran analyst Nima Gerami writes, "Although the Supreme Leader has the final say on all domestic and foreign policy issues, he governs by consensus--not by decree--through consultation with a number of advisors." Advisors who advocate abandoning Iran's nuclear research in order to appease the international community have been sidelined, even treated as traitors, but there are still two distinct groups between whom power shifts from time to time. The far-right nuclear supporters argue that a nuclear weapon is the only way to ensure Iran's adversaries treat it with respect. Nuclear centrists, like President Rouhani, on the other hand, are willing to accept certain limitations on Iran's nuclear enrichment activities in order to foster better diplomatic relations and end crippling sanctions.

Where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei falls between these groups is intentionally unclear. The hardliners are considered to be the base of his political support, but his backing of Rouhani shows that he is willing to give the moderate centrists a chance, at least for now. Evidently even supreme leaders have to be conscious of public opinion and the positions of their political backers. As several analysts have pointed out, Khamenei has deftly positioned himself so that he may take credit for any success or distance himself from failure.

The challenge of reading Khamenei is just one part of the broader inscrutability of the U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Like any other high-stakes political negotiation, the real talks are conducted privately, while what is said publicly is mostly theater, designed either to benefit domestic audiences or influence the negotiations in a more favorable direction. One example is the oft-repeated phase on the American side that "all options are on the table" to ensure that Iran doesn't build a bomb. This is probably calculated to appeal to hardliners on the U.S. side, but it's pretty clearly not true since the Obama administration has put all of its chips on a diplomatic solution. There's no longer a credible threat of military force (although the same may not be true for Israel).

Iran's leaders are well aware of this fact, but nevertheless have seized upon bullyish U.S. rhetoric in their own rallying speeches to the Iranian people. Which brings us back to the "Death to America!" mantra.

While the technical details of any comprehensive nuclear deal will be exceedingly difficult to settle, there is a much broader political hurdle for Iran's leaders to figure out too: Supposing they are willing to compromise, how does a government whose defining characteristic and source of legitimacy is resistance against the United States and Israel ever sign onto a deal that serves those country's interests at the expense of Iran's own aspirations? With this in mind, the most impressive accomplishment the U.S. negotiators could pull off wouldn't be forcing the Iranians into a corner, but rather closing a deal while giving Iran's leaders a way to save face and come out looking stronger rather than weaker. Not only would that strengthen public support for the deal, but also give Khamenei incentive to stick with the moderate path.

Read other article by Scott Zuke