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Comment | How to Engage Iran in Baghdad: Toward a Win-Win Strategy


22 May 2012 17:08Comments

Emphasize potential rewards rather than further punishments.

Angie Ahmadi is an associate at the National Iranian American Council.
[ opinion ] The recent nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.N. Security Council members plus Germany (the P5+1) in Istanbul sparked optimism that the decade-long dispute could be resolved. Positive anticipation of the next round of talks in Baghdad has been amplified by Tehran's softened rhetoric. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi recently stated that Iran will work to improve relations with the West. Even more significantly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's special adviser on international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, described the Istanbul meeting as a step forward: "We hope the following steps will be positive and the West's positioning will not mutate." These remarks indicate a degree of support from Khamenei. But how should Iran's seeming appetite for compromise be utilized by the West to build what E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called "a sustained process of dialogue"?

Parsing Iran's recent behavior can help create a successful framework for negotiations in Baghdad. More than sanctions, Iran's domestic political developments may offer a better explanation of Tehran's posture. Iran's political landscape has shifted in ways that could provide Khamenei with greater decision-making latitude, and factors often identified as impediments to engagement -- factional rivalries within the ruling system and anti-Americanism as a fundamental element of the regime's identity -- may carry less weight than in the past. With an emasculated opposition and a curtailed President Ahmadinejad, Khamenei faces less political pressure at home, thereby removing some obstacles to compromise. Although it is widely believed that a deal with Khamenei is unlikely given his negative perception of the West and risk-averse personality, historical precedent suggests the contrary. Khamenei has been constitutionally authorized to block any foreign policy initiative, but he allowed attempts by former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami to negotiate with the West. Hence, it may be more accurate to say that Khamenei is unlikely to support a deal unless he perceives it as fair and not undermining his own authority.

Prior to the Istanbul talks, Rafsanjani stated that he had urged Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to negotiate with America in the late 1980s. Those remarks might be an attempt to break taboos and provide a degree of political cover for Khamenei to engage with the United States. Following the publication of Rafsanjani's comments, Allaedin Boroujerdi, chairman of the parliament's Foreign Policy and National Security Commission, asserted that the Supreme Leader alone is qualified to decide on U.S.-Iran relations.

This development indicates that hostility toward America may not be an irreversible part of the regime's identity, but rather a policy that can be altered by the Supreme Leader. More importantly, it appears less likely that a nuclear deal will be torpedoed by political infighting. The current ruling elite seemingly view Khamenei as the only legitimate beneficiary of a nuclear breakthrough. Having Jalili present himself as Khamenei's personal representative in Istanbul testifies to this notion. Hence, world powers should test Tehran's relatively unified stance by focusing on Khamenei's perception of the nuclear case.

Iran viewed the emergence of the Supreme Leader's nuclear fatwa in negotiations as a goodwill gesture. Jalili's remarks attest to this: "[The P5+1] consider [the fatwa] valuable and it creates an opportunity and capacity for cooperation." Continued focus on the fatwa may be constructive and perceived as a degree of respect for Iran's Islamic identity. However, the P5+1 is likely reluctant to concentrate on it since Western policymakers suspect that it will not guarantee against Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. They believe Iran's decision making is guided more by political considerations than religious obligations. However, Iranian behavior has contradicted Islamic teachings primarily to preserve the regime. Khamenei is unlikely to damage his reputation by reversing his fatwa unless regime survival requires him to do so -- and it seems that only an attack on Iran could make this permissible.

Further clarification of the "step-by-step approach and reciprocity" proposed by Ashton may boost Iran's interest in pursuing engagement. In a major step toward confidence building, the West has seemingly dropped its zero-enrichment policy that demanded Iran halt uranium enrichment at 3.5 percent. As the next step toward sustained diplomacy, the West could assure Tehran of compelling incentives should it abandon 20-percent enrichment.

Salehi has voiced Iran's readiness to resolve "all issues very quickly and simply in Baghdad" should sanctions be lifted: "There might be room for compromise on higher-level enrichment if [the West] guarantees that they will provide us with the different levels of enriched fuel that we need." This may signal that Iran is willing both to curb its enrichment program and to consider an updated version of the 2009 fuel swap proposal.

In addition, Iranian Ambassador to Russia Mohammad Reza Sadjadi has said it is "possible" that Tehran will accept the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty based on reciprocity and a step-by-step framework; under the Additional Protocol, IAEA inspectors would have unlimited access to Iran's nuclear facilities. To assure reciprocity, the E.U. could indicate that it is prepared to delay its pending oil embargo. Sadjadi has cautioned against imposing the embargo, describing it as a sign that the West is "not serious about resolving the nuclear issue." Following through on Britain's recent call for a six-month delay of the E.U. ban on tankers carrying Iranian oil would be another effective goodwill move.

The atmosphere of mutual respect in Istanbul and both sides' agreement to use the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a framework for negotiations have already led Iran to temper its rhetoric. In preparation for talks in Baghdad, accentuating potential rewards rather than pressure-based policies is likely to be most productive. In order to translate Tehran's rhetoric on compromise into concrete actions and thereby secure a sustainable agreement, it would be wise for the West to match Iran's verifiable compromises with its own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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