Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme had been at an impasse since January,until Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month announced that he had instructed his nuclear negotiator to send a letter accepting an European Union offer to return to talks with the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany (P5+1). EU and US officials immediately balked at this proposal, however, saying that Iran’s offer doesn’t ‘contain anything new’ and therefore doesn’t ‘justify’ another meeting. These officials are right to doubt Iran’s sincerity in concluding a deal, as Ahmadinejad’s offer is rooted in Iran’s domestic politics. Still, returning to talks may be the West’s least bad option.
The timing of Ahmadinejad’s announcement leaves little doubt that it’s geared towards improving his domestic standing, which has been greatly weakened during his recent dispute with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian presidents have consistently reached out to the West as a tactic for improving their domestic standing. Ahmadinejad’s two most immediate predecessors, Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, used a similar approach (as did Ahmadinejad himself after his legitimacy was called into question during the popular uprisings that followed his fraudulent reelection in 2009).
The problem from the West’s point of view is that it’s the Supreme Leader and not Ahmadinejad who holds the real power in the Islamic Republic. With Ahmadinejad’s power at an all time low, the Supreme Leader would almost certainly reject any new deal Ahmadinejad reached with the P5+1, just as he rejected Ahmadinejad’s previous deal in October 2009.
Yet the EU and United States still have little to lose by returning to talks. Those critical of negotiating with Iran have long contended that participating in talks reduces China and Russia’s willingness to take coercive measures against Iran. But this argument was called into question when China and Russia agreed to the strongest set of sanctions against Iran only after attempts to engage Iran had come to naught. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, ‘The fact that we have reached out (to Iran)… has given us much more credibility in our dealings internationally, and therefore, the ability to build an international consensus on the need to apply pressure to Iran.’
In any case, this criticism doesn’t apply to current circumstances as Beijing and Moscow have both made it clear that they won’t sign off on further sanctions. China, for instance, has continued to trade with Iran under the current sanctions regime. Moreover, it’s unlikely to jeopardize its access to Iran’s oil and natural gas reserves at a time when energy markets are so volatile. Russia, for its part, just shipped another batch of nuclear fuel to Iran and is opposing the release of a new UN report that documents Iran’s attempts to circumvent sanctions. Just last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for easing sanctions against Iran in order to foster greater cooperation. It therefore was no surprise that both countries quickly endorsed Ahmadinejad’s decision to return to negotiations. Refusing to accept Iran’s offer will only give them a greater excuse to avoid taking action.
The West’s refusal would have similarly damning consequences inside Iran. First, it plays into the Iranian government’s narrative, which depicts the West’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear program as part of its imperialistic designs to keep Iran weak. This narrative is well received by the Iranian population and it strengthens their resolve to endure Iran’s increasingly perilous economic conditions.
Additionally, by rebuking Ahmadinejad and his allies’ public overture, the West would be helping to marginalize the Iranian officials who are most favourable to compromise. There’s a precedent for this. Indeed, Ahmadinejad and his allies own rise to power was due in part to the perception among Iranians that their reformist predecessors’ efforts to reach out to the West had been an embarrassing failure for Iran.
On the other hand, negotiations would rob the Iranian government of their favourite scapegoat, the United States, to explain away their economic mismanagement. This would strengthen the population’s resentment over the country’s steadily deteriorating economy. Faced with increased domestic pressure to get the sanctions lifted, Ahmadinejad and others who favour reconciling with the West would be in a stronger position to convince the Supreme Leader to accept a compromise. At a minimum, Western engagement would strengthen the existing divisions within the Iranian government, which hinders itsability to advance the nuclear program.
Negotiating with Iran doesn’t guarantee a favorable outcome. But refusing to do so can only have adverse consequences. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the West is best served by accepting Ahmadinejad’s offer.
Zachary Keck is a former intern in the U.S. Congress and at the Center for a New American Security. His commentary has appeared online at Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and World Politics Review.