An agreement with the U.S. is unlikely to bring Iran to the table on other crucial issues like regional security and human rights.
When Secretary of State John Kerry entered the Upper East Side apartment of Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations last month for a meeting with the Islamic republic’s foreign minister, the development seemed unremarkable on its face. Same thing this month, when the U.S. agreed to allow the Iranian Interests Section in the District of Columbia to relocate in exchange for new office space for its American counterpart in Tehran.
But observers were quick to point out that the modest diplomatic movements marked as much cooperation as the U.S. and Iran have demonstrated in decades. With Kerry’s New York visit, he became the most senior U.S. official to set foot on what could technically be considered Iranian controlled territory since the hostage crisis of 1979. Similarly, the simple exchange of workspace was noted as one of the first negotiated deals between the two countries since they suspended relations in 1980.
Both come as Iran and the U.S. continue to negotiate a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities – a deal for which a framework has been reached but that still faces a hard deadline on details looming less than seven weeks away. The possibility of such an agreement – which both sides maintain is within reach – also brings the prospect of a historic turning point in Iran’s relations with the Middle East and the rest of the world, as it struggles to balance its anti-Western ideology with its regional ambitions more than three decades removed from the Islamic Revolution.
Officials on each side have warned against the generalization that a nuclear deal would lead to further talks on other outstanding issues, such as greater cooperation in the volatile region over the ongoing Syrian civil war, the battle against the Islamic State group or even Iran’s dismal record on human rights. Iran, for example, has vehemently denied that the relocation of the U.S. delegation in its country was related to the ongoing nuclear talks, while the State Department quickly dismissed the significance of Kerry’s meeting, saying diplomats don’t consider embassy grounds to be foreign soil.
“It is not about any side deals on other issues. It is not about trying to forge a broader and deeper relationship with Iran,” Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken emphatically maintained in an April lecture at the Council on Foreign Relations, during which he discussed the nuclear negotiations. “It is about the nuclear program and trying to answer the international community’s concerns about that program.”
Long-held distrust between the U.S. and Iran has historically made it difficult for the two countries to collaborate even when they have shared interests. The U.S. rejects Iranian military meddling across the Middle East in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and is wary of the secretive regime – officially designated a state sponsor of terrorism – that has repeatedly violated international agreements and lacked transparency regarding its nuclear program.
U.S. officials and international advocacy groups have also long criticized Iran’s human rights record, most recently symbolized by its detention of Jason Rezaian, an American-Iranian reporter with The Washington Post. More broadly, Iran is known, among other things, for its staggering number of public executions to punish crimes that include minor drug offenses and adultery, its poor treatment of women and religious minorities and its opposition to political dissent that resulted in the brutal suppression of widespread protests in 2009 dubbed the “Green movement.”
For its part, Iran has found satisfaction in its independence from the U.S. sphere of influence and its rejection of the Western economic system. Its nuclear program, for example, remains a point of pride.
Emad Kiyaei, executive director of the nonprofit American Iranian Council, a think tank promoting mutual understanding between the countries, says it’s remarkable that the U.S. and Iran are even engaging on the level they are for the negotiations. He says the diplomacy marks a “historic period.”
“This could be a major removal of a bottleneck that has caused a great deal of distraction from much more pressing issues that are happening in the region, where Iran and the U.S. and the regional countries can really come together for more constructive dialogue rather than pitting themselves against each other in these different military theaters,” he says.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with a group of religious performers in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 9.
Analysts suggest that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 75 years old and reportedly suffering from prostate cancer, is likely considering the legacy he will leave after a nuclear deal. Only the second supreme leader since the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979, he may not be eager to be responsible for strengthening ties with America – resentment against which fueled the revolution and prompted the nickname the “Great Satan.”
“The supreme leader still fears … that any kind of true rapprochement with the U.S. completely changes the narrative of the regime and its ideology. It’s hard for them to justify cozying up with the U.S.,” says Matt McInnis, a fellow who specializes in U.S.-Iran security policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “The supreme leader is very nervous about what that means for the long-term direction of the state – especially because he may be passing on in the next few years – for his successor and so forth, that he’s setting Iran on the path of getting sucked up into the U.S. orbit and I think he does not want that.”
But comments from Khamenei himself offer the possibility that the nuclear negotiations could actually provide an opening for dialogue on other issues, regardless of his clear and repeated denials that any other regional, international or domestic issues were discussed in the talks.
In April remarks made days after negotiators announced a mutually agreed upon framework for a nuclear deal, Khamenei drew headlines with his pronouncement that a final agreement was not necessarily a sure thing – raising widespread questions about whether the deal had his support. But tucked within his address was a less-considered comment.
“If the other side avoids its ambiguity in the talks, it’ll be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues,” Khamenei said, leading to speculation that he is open to wider engagement.
McInnis says that, despite what may be Khamenei’s trepidation, such engagement is not out of the question. Ideology is identity for the Islamic republic, but its leaders frequently opt for pragmatic courses of action.
“They override ideology with practical realpolitik all the time in their actual decisions. They’re not crazy. Sometimes they can be fanatical, but the people actually making decisions are not crazy zealots in the sense that practical concerns will trump ideology almost every time in real decision-making,” he says. “But the problem is that the ideology forms the basis of their foreign policy and domestic policies.”
He says the Catch-22 for Iran lies in this: “They feel like they will lose a certain status and lose face and their ability to lead in the region if they give up [their ideology], even if from a realpolitik sense it doesn’t make any sense.”
The desires to obtain relief from crippling economic sanctions, to play a role in regional politics and decision-making, and to improve its economy through international trade may be too strong for Iran to resist. It could also work to Tehran’s advantage to pull the U.S. closer, hoping to reduce the influence of foes like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who fear the U.S.-brokered nuclear agreement won’t do enough to make sure Iran doesn’t get a bomb and that sanctions relief will only embolden it.
Kiyaei says such a relationship could prove to be a good thing for the U.S. and the region.
“If Iran’s role as a regional player is actually recognized and brought in as a stabilizing force and one that can actually play a constructive role, then we can also in a sense have changes within the Iranian domestic political sphere that allows more openness towards dialogue, diplomacy and so on.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a public event at New York University on April 29.
Despite hard-line rhetoric from some quarters of the regime, the Iranian public appears eager for that openness and an end to their economic woes. The 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, who spurred the nuclear talks and is seen in his country as a moderate who carried the mantle of the reformers pressing for political change in 2009, signified that sentiment.
The current sanctions, consisting of U.S. as well as international measures, have stunted economic growth and led many educated Iranians to seek a future outside the country. Just as President Barack Obama must answer to Congress and the American public on a nuclear deal, the Iranian political system is similarly nuanced and complex. Even the supreme leader must navigate competing interests, conceding to varying constituencies on approaches to issues like the economy and national security.
In addition to indications of increased cooperation with the U.S., Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated his country’s commitment to a regional dialogue in a conversation in New York hosted by the New America Foundation, rejecting assertions that Tehran has been inappropriately meddling in Yemen in that country’s recent conflict. Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels that overthrew the Yemeni government, has clashed with Saudi Arabia, which is deeply sensitive to the slow creep of Iranian interests in the region and conducted an air campaign in the country against the Houthis.
“We are committed to this. We want to have dialogue with our neighbors because we believe there is almost on every issue complementarity of interest between us and our neighbors,” Zarif said. “Iran is a serious player in this region.”
But Barbara Slavin, a nonresident senior fellow with the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, says Iran has some growing up it needs to do it if truly wants to be taken seriously on Middle East matters.
“They want to be respected,” Slavin says. “They don’t want to be excluded from the security discussions about the region, but many of their actions are such that they antagonize the Arab states and I think make this whole process even more difficult.”
A recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is an apt illustration of the potential ways a closer relationship with Iran could easily become derailed. The Iranian military fired warning shots at a Marshall Islands-flagged ship and then escorted it to an Iranian port. Zarif explained the episode by saying the vessel was involved in legal proceedings in Iran and the military was merely carrying out a court order. But Iran’s encounter with the ship, which the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend, came a week after U.S. ships blocked an Iranian flotilla from reaching Yemen.
“That’s the sort of thing that drives people nuts about Iran – that it does these things that responsible stakeholders in the international system shouldn’t do, but it does them anyway and it always has, certainly since the Islamic Republic came in,” Slavin says. “Iran has to grow up sometime. It has to stop chanting ‘death to America,’ it has to stop taking hostages before it’s going to be accepted as a constructive actor in the region.”
The U.S., wary of the delicate balance reaching a nuclear deal already requires, doesn’t seem to be holding its breath, at least publicly, for a new level of detente with Iran.
“You can imagine a future in which as a result of this agreement, assuming it’s finalized, the more pragmatic elements in Iran get wind in their sails and have greater say over Iran’s broader foreign policy. And that would be a positive development,” Blinken said. “But I don’t want to sit here and say that I would anticipate that, or that that is actually the larger intent behind the deal.”
Because Obama only has a year and a half remaining in his term, implementation of the nuclear deal, and its domino effects, will largely be left to the next administration. But the assistant secretary of state said the U.S. is prepared for a post-deal outcome that, for better or for worse, changes the nature of the U.S. relationship with Iran.
“If there are ancillary benefits that flow from a nuclear agreement, terrific,” Blinken said. “If, on the contrary, there are problems that emerge from it, we will be ready to deal with them.”