There are powerful constituencies—e.g., the Israel lobby, neoconservative Republicans, their Democratic “fellow travelers,” and U.S.-based Iran “experts”—that oppose any deal recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights. They understand that acknowledging these rights would also mean accepting the Islamic Republic as an enduring entity representing legitimate national interests; to do so, America would have to abandon its post-Cold War pretensions to Middle Eastern hegemony.
Those pretensions have proven dangerously corrosive of America’s ability to accomplish important objectives in the Middle East, and of its global standing. Just witness the profoundly self-damaging consequences of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, and how badly the “global war on terror” has eviscerated the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Muslim world.
But, as the drama over Obama’s call for military action against Syria indicates, America’s political class remains deeply attached to imperial pretense—even as the American public turns away from it. If Washington could accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate regional power, it could work with Tehran and others on a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Instead, Washington reiterates hubristic demands that President Bashar al-Assad step down before a political process starts, and relies on a Saudi-funded “Syrian opposition” increasingly dominated by al-Qa’ida-like extremists.
If Obama does not conclude a deal recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights, it will confirm suspicions already held by many Iranian elites—including Ayatollah Khamenei—and in Beijing and Moscow about America’s real agenda vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. It will become undeniably clear that U.S. opposition to indigenous Iranian enrichment is not motivated by proliferation concerns, but by determination to preserve American hegemony—and Israeli military dominance—in the Middle East. If this is so, why should China, Russia, or rising Asian powers continue trying to help Washington—e.g., by accommodating U.S. demands to limit their own commercial interactions with Iran—obtain an outcome it does not actually want?
America can also fail Iran’s test if it is unable to provide comprehensive sanctions relief as part of a negotiated nuclear settlement. The Obama administration now acknowledges what we have noted for some time—that, beyond transitory executive branch initiatives, lifting or even substantially modifying U.S. sanctions to support diplomatic progress will take congressional action.
During Obama’s presidency, many U.S. sanctions initially imposed by executive order have been written into law. These bills—signed, with little heed to their long-term consequences, by Obama himself—have also greatly expanded U.S. secondary sanctions, which threaten to punish third-country entities not for anything they’ve done in America, but for perfectly lawful business they conduct in or with Iran. The bills contain conditions for removing sanctions stipulating not just the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also termination of Tehran’s ties to movements like Hizballah that Washington (foolishly) designates as terrorists and the Islamic Republic’s effective transformation into a secular liberal republic.
The Obama administration may have managed to delay passage of yet another sanctions bill for a few weeks—but Congressional Democrats no less than congressional Republicans have made publicly clear that they will not relax conditions for removing existing sanctions to help Obama conclude and implement a nuclear deal. If their obstinacy holds, why should others respect Washington’s high-handed demands for compliance with its extraterritorial (hence, illegal) sanctions against Iran?
Going into the next round of nuclear talks in Geneva on Thursday, it is unambiguously plain that Obama will have to spend enormous political capital to realign relations with Iran. America’s future standing as a great power depends significantly on his readiness to do so.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are authors of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: Metropolitan, 2013) and teach international relations, he at Penn State, she at American University.