America’s Iran policy is at a crossroads. Washington can abandon its counterproductive insistence on Middle Eastern hegemony, negotiate a nuclear deal grounded in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and get serious about working with Tehran to broker a settlement to the Syrian conflict. In the process, the United States would greatly improve its ability to shape important outcomes there. Alternatively, America can continue on its present path, leading ultimately to strategic irrelevance in one of the world’s most vital regions—with negative implications for its standing in Asia as well.
U.S. policy is at this juncture because the costs of Washington’s post-Cold War drive to dominate the Middle East have risen perilously high. President Obama’s self-inflicted debacle over his plan to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August showed that America can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of force to impose its preferences in the region. While Obama still insists “all options are on the table” for Iran, the reality is that, if Washington is to deal efficaciously with the nuclear issue, it will be through diplomacy.
In this context, last month’s Geneva meeting between Iran and the P5+1 brought America’s political class to a strategic and political moment of truth. Can American elites turn away from a self-damaging quest for Middle Eastern hegemony by coming to terms with an independent regional power? Or are they so enthralled with an increasingly surreal notion of America as hegemon that, to preserve U.S. “leadership,” they will pursue a course further eviscerating its strategic position?
The proposal for resolving the nuclear issue that Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, presented in Geneva seeks answers to these questions. It operationalizes the approach advocated by Hassan Rohani and other Iranian leaders for over a decade: greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for recognizing its rights as a sovereign NPT signatory—especially to enrich uranium under international safeguards—and removal of sanctions. For years, the Bush and Obama administrations rejected this approach. Now Obama must at least consider it.
The Iranian package provides greater transparency on Tehran’s nuclear activities in two crucial respects. First, it gives greater visibility on the conduct of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has reportedly offered to comply voluntarily for some months with the Additional Protocol (AP) to the NPT—which it has signed but not yet ratified and which authorizes more proactive and intrusive inspections—to encourage diplomatic progress. Tehran would ratify the AP—thereby committing to its permanent implementation—as part of a final deal.
Second, the package aims to validate Iran’s declarations that its enrichment infrastructure is not meant to produce weapons-grade fissile material. Iran would stop enriching at the near-20 percent level of fissile-isotope purity needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor and cap enrichment at levels suitable for fueling power reactors. Similarly, Iran is open to capping the number of centrifuges it would install—at least for some years—at its enrichment sites in Natanz and Fordo.
Based on conversations with Iranian officials and political figures in New York in September (during Rohani and Zarif’s visit to the UN General Assembly) and in Tehran last month, it is also possible to identify items that the Iranian proposal almost certainly does not include. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has reportedly given President Rohani and his diplomats flexibility in negotiating a settlement—but he has also directed that they not compromise Iran’s sovereignty. Thus, the Islamic Republic will not acquiesce to American (and Israeli) demands to suspend enrichment, shut its enrichment site at Fordo, stop a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak, and ship its current enriched uranium stockpile abroad.
On one level, the Iranian package is crafted to resolve the nuclear issue based on the NPT, within a year. Iran’s nuclear rights would be respected; transparency measures would reduce the proliferation risks of its enrichment activities below what Washington tolerates elsewhere. On another level, though, the package means to test America’s willingness and capability to resolve the issue on this basis. It tests this not just for Tehran’s edification, but also for that of other P5+1 states, especially China and Russia, and of rising powers like India and South Korea.
America can fail the Iranian test in two ways. First, the Obama administration—reflecting America’s political class more broadly—may prove unwilling to acknowledge Iran’s nuclear rights in a straightforward way, insisting on terms for a deal that effectively suborn these rights and violate Iranian sovereignty.
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.