Is Iran Angling for a Grand Bargain?
September 21, 2009
Is Iran seeking a ‘grand bargain’ with the United States? Conventional wisdom holds that Iranian conservatives are implacably opposed to rapprochement with the ‘Great Satan.’ President Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric perpetually seems to reinforce this conventional wisdom. So why has Iran submitted a proposal for comprehensive negotiations? The obvious response is that Iran merely seeks to divide the P5+1 and stall for time to make further progress on its nuclear program. But these assessments may be short-sighted; things are often not what they seem with Iran. Though the idea may strain credulity in light of common thinking, Iran may indeed be open to a fundamental and positive transformation of relations.
This summer’s electoral fraud appeared to have defeated not only Mir Hussein Mousavi, but hope for progress in US-Iran relations. Surely the last thing that the ideologically-motivated regime would want to do is reach an accommodation with Public Enemy No. 1. After all, it makes its living railing against American evil and imperialism. Yet many experts believe that a settlement with the United States is a grand prize of Iranian politics. This is taboo; consider it the dirty little secret of Iranian politics. But Iranian domestic politics may be what prevented rapprochement during the Clinton-Khatami period. The conservatives, according to this argument, held Khatami back not because of ideology – but because they did not want a reformist president to receive credit for a breakthrough with America. Ironically, the recent conservative electoral coup may offer the US the best chance it has had in six years to come to terms with Iran.
Iran last made a grand gesture in 2003. It submitted a proposal outlining a grand bargain in which it would cease opposition to Arab-Israeli peace, recognize Israel, come fully clean on its nuclear pursuits, and provide assistance in the war with al-Qaeda. In exchange, it would receive American affirmation of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, removal of sanctions, full access to peaceful nuclear, chemical, and biotechnology, and acknowledgment of Iranian security interests. The proposal fell on largely deaf ears in a Bush administration still riding high from its initial success in Iraq. Anything seemed possible in May 2003 – including US military rollback of the Iranian regime. Fear of rollback is most likely what prompted Iran to make such a bold proposal. The theocracy again faces an existential threat in 2009 – this time from its own people. Despite the regime’s apparent consolidation of control, instability lurks beneath the surface. For domestic political reasons, now may be a better time than ever for the conservatives to cash in their chips and claim the prize of rapprochement with the United States.
The language of Iran’s most recent proposal is not nearly as specific as that of the urgent, secret proposal sent in 2003, but it does hint of another possible effort at a grand bargain. The “Package of Proposals by the Islamic Republic of Iran for Comprehensive and Constructive Negotiations” is certainly loaded with platitudes. But this should not be viewed with surprise coming from a country that specializes in taarof – an Iranian code of interaction and negotiation that involves rhetorical flourish, exaggeration, implication, expectation of deference, and disingenuousness. Indeed, if one cuts through the platitudes and randomness, one will find that Iran continues to seek what it has always sought: geopolitical prominence in its own region and freedom from worry over foreign interference.
The proposal identifies three ‘axes’ of negotiation, the first of which is ‘political-security issues.’ This axis emphasizes, above all, respect for the rights and interests of sovereign nations; read: formal American recognition of the Islamic regime and its right to manage its domestic affairs as it sees fit. Read also: American recognition of Iranian security interests. Iran considers the Persian Gulf to be its area of chief geopolitical concern – more so that the Levant or Caspian. It has long sought a more prominent role in Gulf security affairs – a role largely denied it by the American presence. The new proposal hints at an accommodation based on a more equitable distribution of power and responsibility in the Persian Gulf: “The Iranian nation is prepared to enter into dialogue and negotiation in order to lay the ground for lasting peace and regionally inspired and generated stability” (emphasis added).
If Iran is serious about rapprochement, what are the chances of success? The American response hinges on two variables: geopolitical implications and domestic politics. The contours of any grand bargain would likely have to include elements of the 2003 proposal: greater nuclear transparency, cessation of support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and even Iranian assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the standpoint of American geopolitical interests, it would be hard to turn down such a package. But such geopolitical benefits could be neutralized by excessive Iranian demands elsewhere; American withdrawal from the Persian Gulf would be a non-starter. The American decision would also hinge on a calculation of the trustworthiness of the Iranian regime to keep its promises. The abusiveness, paranoia, and extreme disingenuousness of the regime put on display this summer may lead the US to determine that it is wiser strategically to deny Ahmadinejad and Company the grand prize of rapprochement and wait for a more trustworthy (and morally-palatable) government to emerge in the future. This would most likely leave the nuclear issue unresolved.
The question of morality will certainly play into debate at the domestic political level. The idea of an Obama-Ahmadinejad photo-op is surely stomach-turning to many Americans and perhaps to the President himself. Yet more importantly, it may be politically infeasible. If Mr. Obama does indeed decide to embrace geopolitical realism, will he be able to withstand the certain accusations of selling out the Iranian Opposition and American principles? More practically, will he be able to get Congress on board with removing sanctions – an Iranian condition for any major rapprochement?
The Iranian proposal may be disingenuous or amount to nothing, but this is more certain to be the case if America fails to dial down the cynicism and abandon the myopic focus on Iran’s nuclear program. Disagreement as to whether uranium enrichment is on the agenda for October talks is already a bad sign. Reconciliation with this Iranian government may not be feasible or in the United States’ best interests – but it would be potentially short-sighted to reach those conclusions before fully exploring all of the possibilities.