Over the past year, the discussion surrounding Iran’s nuclear program has shifted from unequivocal distrust to hopeful rationalism. Some critics, like Ray Takeyh or Dennis Ross, have remained skeptical, urging the P5+1, the group of six countries negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, to maintain pressure on Iran, blaming the clerics for subjecting Iranians to economic hardship for the irrational sake of defiance. They argue the only way to dissuade bad behavior is to impose unacceptable consequences. Others have chosen a less rigid approach. The Economist recently published a special report on the changes in Iran, highlighting the “hope and prudence” promised by the President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. While still urging for the application of pressure and for a limited program (ultimately preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East), the publication touches on one point that is too often glossed over – that “Iran will not suddenly abandon its nuclear programme, which ordinary Iranians would see as humiliation.” But Iran has made rational choices in the past that may have been humiliating, so why not now? Iran is, in fact, acting rationally – but it needs face-saving measures the P5+1 have not yet provided.
The current approach is one of tough love. It assumes Iran (and Iranians) will ultimately obey the P5+1 in exchange for normalizing relations. It assumes Iran’s demands are unrealistic not because early detection of a “breakout” (rapid, unauthorized production of a nuclear weapon) would be tough, but because they would not allow adequate time for non-military action. This is achievable only by limiting the program to what nuclear physicist Frank Von Hippel called a “token nuclear program” – a program just large enough for Iran to legitimately claim a program exists. But if the nuclear program is in fact an issue of pride for Iranians, how could Iran justify a mere token program? The P5+1, on the other hand, should not capitulate because Iran is too prideful to reach an agreement that limits its program. What should be reconsidered, however, is how strong the two positions actually are.
The Iranian government has substantially strengthened its position and legitimacy both domestically and abroad since the uprising during the 2009 elections. While its over-active judiciary has gained international fame through seeking to address domestic ills, Rouhani has been very vocal in pushing for policies including more free speech in universities, more interaction with the West, and, quite notably, fighting against the government’s religiously-driven policies. For example, Rouhani tried to repeal the death sentence of Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman convicted of murder for killing a doctor accused of trying to rape her. He has condemned the recent spate of acid-throwing spurred by a new law allowing private citizens to enforce morality laws, “embracing good while rejecting evil,” gaining praise even from Human Rights Watch for the welcome change in rhetoric. Rouhani’s battles with the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) on education issues in particular have been noteworthy. The Majlis impeached Rouhani’s chosen Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Reza Faraji-Dana, a reformist, and likewise failed to confirm Rouhani’s next two choices, reformists Mohamad Ali Najafi and Fakhroldin Ahmadi Danesh Ashtiani. In response, as a clear jab at the Majlis, Rouhani temporarily appointed Najafi to the post, thus demonstrating to many his commitment to pursue reforms in education. The renewed P5+1 nuclear negotiations, the interim agreement, and the reports that Iran is complying with the interim agreement demonstrate that, unlike his predecessor Ahmadinejad’s administration, Rouhani is taking these talks seriously. These efforts have strengthened the legitimacy of the Iranian government, demonstrating that there are prominent individuals in power who are pushing for a relaxation of social restrictions and improved relations with the West.
In their special report, The Economist published data on the economic effects of sanctions on Iran’s economy, noting the effects have been “profound.” This is true: GDP, consumer prices, oil production, imports, exports, and the rial (Iranian currency) are all down since the most recent round of sanctions in 2012. However, with the exception of the enormous drop in the exchange rate, these figures are not too far off from what they have been the past ten years. The question becomes, then, not “has Western pressure profoundly affected Iran?” but “is it bearable?” The answer is “yes,” and the Iranian government has accumulated enough political capital to rationally continue down this path for the next few years.
The timeline is the final important factor to consider, as is the fact that these negotiations are not occurring in a political vacuum. Both sides have an interest in coming to an agreement as soon as possible before the circumstances drastically change. The P5+1 has more at stake. If the deadline is not met, the P5+1 may be pressed to simply end the negotiations, which would be a major diplomatic failure. Continuing would be breaking their own rules and giving Iran a free pass for not meeting their terms. But Iran also has an interest in coming to an agreement as soon as possible because its current political strength may diminish. Iran appears to be betting against this, though, and to be looking instead to release the pressure of negotiating under a deadline. Breaking out of the temporal boundaries the P5+1 set for the negotiations could be symbolic of Iran’s independence – it will not act at the West’s command.
Iran is making rational choices in its negotiations with the West. Iran believes its position is strong enough not to capitulate, and would require face-saving measures to justify concessions in some areas. Face-saving measures are a major diplomatic tool, but conspicuously absent from the discourse. Rhetoric has focused too much on what the West hopes Iran values and not on what Iran says it values. Some things are certain. There is a desire for a deal; both sides are taking the negotiations seriously; and there is logic in not quitting simply because a deadline passed. Iran, however, has rationally concluded it is in a much stronger negotiating position than the West anticipated, and a deal cannot be ripe by November 24 without providing Iran face-saving measures.
Photo taken by US State Department (Public Domain)