What Iran Wants

As talks on Iran’s nuclear program resume in Moscow, the United States and Western powers are showing little willingness to pull back on economic sanctions, even in exchange for Iran’s suspension of its higher refinement of uranium. Ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar suggests looking at the issue from the Iranian side.

By Paul R. Pillar

Many of the inadequacies in how the United States has been approaching negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program reflect either a refusal or an inability to take into account the perspective of the Iranian regime. This sort of reverse perspective is important for success in any negotiation, no matter how much the party on the other side of the table is either respected or loathed.

Underlying the failure to take this perspective in the nuclear talks has been a tendency to treat the talks less as a true negotiation than as a forum for Tehran to cry uncle in response to increasing pressure. This tendency has become apparent in numerous ways, even among commentators who ostensibly want the talks to succeed.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

For example, a piece by Dennis Ross (who until recently had a major role in shaping policy toward Iran) begins by stating that the “ultimate goal of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran” is: “Determining whether Iran is willing to accept that its nuclear program must be credibly limited in a way that precludes it from being able to turn civil nuclear power into nuclear weapons.”

That’s the “ultimate goal”? Isn’t the goal of a negotiation instead to reach an agreement rather than deadlock? In this case that means striking a deal that satisfies western concerns about nuclear proliferation while also satisfying Iran’s minimum requirements consistent with keeping its nuclear activities peaceful. A reduction of the “goal” to a one-sided test of Iranian willingness to meet a one-issue Western demand is a very different concept.

One hopes that the thinking going into the current round of these negotiations is more realistic about what it will take for these negotiations to succeed. The signs from previous rounds, and from much of the public discourse heading into this week’s round, are not very encouraging in that regard.

Of course we do not know the details of the thinking and strategy of the Iranian side either. But in the interest of filling some of the void in reverse perspectives, here is a plausible reproduction of the key points in the strategy document that the Iranian government has prepared for its negotiators (no endorsement of these perspectives is implied, the only implication is that we ought to think hard about them):

Subject: The Moscow Talks

The Islamic Republic’s principal objectives for the meeting with the P5+1 in Moscow remain essentially unchanged from the meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad. Those objectives are to make progress toward an agreement that will curtail the economic warfare that the West is waging against the Islamic Republic, to achieve recognition for our right to a peaceful nuclear program including the enrichment of uranium, and to avoid damage to the prestige and standing of the Islamic Republic with either domestic or foreign audiences.

Over the longer term, a further objective is for the negotiation to be a step toward normality in our relations with the community of nations. For now, however, we must concentrate primarily on what it will take to reach an agreement that satisfies our minimum objectives, taking into account the West’s acute and narrow focus on our nuclear activities.

It remains highly uncertain how much desire there is in the West and especially the United States to reach any agreement with us at all. It is even more uncertain whether there is sufficient willingness in the West, and again especially in the United States, to take the steps necessary to reach an agreement.

Some vocal figures have been quite open about wanting the negotiations to fail. Others do not openly admit such an aim but insist on conditions so extreme that they obviously would preclude any agreement. This position is characteristic of the Israeli government. Given that this government is the dominant influence on how our nuclear activities get discussed in the United States, similar positions are being voiced in public debate there and in the U.S. Congress.

Some in the United States evidently would welcome a war with the Islamic Republic (for reasons our analysts have not entirely been able to figure out, given the very heavy damage such a conflict would inflict on the Americans, and given how recent has been their disastrous experience in Iraq).

This still appears to be a minority view, but it may gain support the more that pro-war elements portray such a war as the only alternative to the Islamic Republic obtaining a nuclear weapon, notwithstanding the current peaceful nature of our nuclear activities.

A more widely held viewpoint in the United States is a desire to undermine the Islamic Republic, coupled with a belief that the economic warfare, commonly referred to as sanctions, will precipitate a collapse of the political order in our country. For many in the United States this appears to be what the sanctions are mainly about.

Accordingly, we need to be wary of the significant likelihood that the United States and its Western partners are stringing out the negotiations in the hope that the economic pressures will have such a destabilizing effect. Such a stringing-out strategy obviously implies continued obduracy regarding the West’s position at the negotiating table.

The Moscow talks will be the latest test of the West’s seriousness and willingness to reach an agreement. Insofar as the meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad were similar tests, the test results were not encouraging. We need to continue to give the other side, however, every opportunity to demonstrate that it really wants an agreement.

This does not imply a change in our basic negotiating posture. After all, we already have made quite clear our willingness to back away from enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. This ought to be the most important possible concession for Westerners, if all of their concern about a so-called Iranian “break-out capability” is to be believed.

What the P5+1 put on the table at Baghdad was clearly unacceptable, with no mention of any easing of the economic warfare beyond some spare parts for airplanes. It was unacceptable even without taking into account the blatant inconsistency of placing demands on the Islamic Republic regarding nuclear activities that are not placed on others. As our wayward former colleague Hossein Mousavian put it, the implied trade would be “diamonds for peanuts.”

Although our basic posture may not change, there are things our negotiators at Moscow could effectively emphasize. One is to insist that the P5+1 side do what it has not yet done, which is to specify exactly what would be required for the economic warfare to wind down. Emphasizing this will not only help explore what possibilities there may be for future mutual concessions but also will call the West’s bluff as to what the sanctions really are all about.

Our negotiators also should use every opportunity to get the P5+1 team to realize that despite the extremely narrow Western focus on our nuclear activities, the two sides are engaged in a much larger bargaining relationship. Although the P5+1 rebuffed our suggestions at Istanbul regarding other topics to discuss, their negotiators need to be reminded that there are many ways in which the Islamic Republic can either help or hinder what is in Western interests.

Similarly, the P5+1 negotiators need to be aware that although inspection arrangements with the International Atomic Energy Agency are being discussed in another forum, they really are part of the same overall bargaining relationship. Although we have been quite forthcoming in opening up our nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection, we are not going to give up all of our bargaining chips regarding something like admission of inspectors to military facilities if we are getting nothing in return.

Our negotiators need to keep uppermost in mind the costs and dangers of appearing to bow to the West with one-sided concessions made under pressure. Doing so would be a blow to the power and prestige of the Islamic Republic. It would likely produce internal political difficulties, especially in light of the very broad support that a peaceful nuclear program has among our citizens. There are limits to what even the Supreme Leader could accomplish politically in such circumstances.

One-sided concessions under pressure also would be likely to elicit only more pressure, and indeed much commentary in the United States appears to regard sanctions in exactly this way. Given that we still do not know whether most of the economic warfare ever would stop no matter what we do or what we concede regarding the nuclear program, we have to insist up-front on something specific and significant before we make any further concessions.

The Obama regime’s posture toward the negotiations is shaped overwhelmingly by two short-term considerations. One is to lower the risk of Israel starting a war, which would be highly damaging to American interests. The other consideration is the president’s effort to get reelected. Both of these objectives imply an interest in keeping the negotiations going for the next few months but in maintaining hard-line demands, and refusing to reduce economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, so as to stay reasonably consistent with Israel’s extreme hard-line posture.

This unfortunately will encourage continued inflexibility by the P5+1 at the negotiating table. The only hope for more U.S. flexibility in the next few months is if Obama concludes that reaching at least an interim agreement with the Islamic Republic would not hurt and might even help his chances for reelection. There is a basis for such a conclusion, although that does not seem to be the dominant thinking so far in Washington.

There may be greater hope for some flexibility on the part of the European portion of the P5+1, especially given President Francois Hollande’s election in France. Europe’s severe economic difficulties may work in our favor. Those difficulties should weaken support for an all-pressure posture toward the Islamic Republic because of the effects on the price of oil, either because of sanctions or because of market reactions to anti-Iranian saber-rattling (what has been referred to as the “Netanyahu gasoline tax”).

These are admittedly just slivers of optimism amid much continued reason for pessimism about the West’s willingness to reach any agreement with us. Time is not on our side, and there is little or no prospect for easing of the economic warfare regardless of what we do or say in Moscow.

But a fair agreement that accepts a peaceful nuclear program is still in our interests. It is thus also in our interests to continue negotiating as long as there is any hope for an agreement, while taking care not to inflict damage on ourselves needlessly without getting anything significant in return. We also can maintain hope of more reasonableness in the future if more in the West come to see what is in their own interests.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “What Iran Wants

  1. Kenny Fowler
    June 20, 2012 at 20:11

    Obviously nobody cares what Iran wants. This hysteria has been created by Israel and perpetuated with the help of politicians in the U.S. The Israelis figured once Saddam was out of the way, the U.S. could be duped into attacking Iran. They even tried to use the same ruse. Claiming that Iran’s reluctance to agree to wholesale dismantling of their fledgling nuclear power industry means they are building nuclear weapons and bombing Iran is the solution. But alas it was a no go on the bombing. The U.S. has to stop being a proxy for Israel in the P5+1 and make a deal with Iran recognizing their right to have domestic nuclear power. The Israeli’s are full of BS. They won’t bomb Iran without U.S. participation.

  2. June 20, 2012 at 14:28

    I have yet to see a logical explanation why Russia, and especially China, went along with UN sanctions against Iran, which seem to be contrary to their own self-interests. It’s not that they’re shy as can be seen by their actions with regard to Syria. If I’ve missed something, I’d appreciate some help.

  3. incontinent reader
    June 19, 2012 at 16:04

    The Administration may think it is exercising what it calls “Smart Power” (though one wonders if it has even applied that approach correctly) but its objectives are foolish and counterproductive, tied as they are to its hegemonist policy in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere. Moreover, “Smart Power” is revealed as contradictory when one looks at how we have ignored dealing with the Palestinian Occupation or facilitated Israel’s brutality in the Occupied Territories or its aggression with its neighbors. In all of this, Iran has been regarded as Israel’s antagonist, because it has been one of the few Muslim governments-to the extreme discredit of the Arabs- that has consistently supported Palestinian rights and resistance with something other than smooth talk and handouts, and thus has been targeted as an “existential threat” to Israel and the U.S. Whether or not Iran is a theocratic state that is authoritarian on politically or religiously sensitive matters, let’s not forget that Israel under the Likud is becoming more and more of a garrison state that is intolerant of religious or political differences (nor forget our “national security” legislation, and not just the NDAA which is a small piece of an ever increasing restrictive web of legislation that has eroded some of our most precious liberties). And face it, if you are Muslim in Israel, whether or not you are a citizen, how easy is it, if it is possible at all, to buy land or get permits to build or repair in Israel? Maybe hardly likely? And, if you live in the Occupied Territories, forget it, unless you are an Israeli settler with a huge bureaucracy to support you and all the comforts of home.

    So, isn’t it time to face up to the reality, and try to help solve the regional problems in a meaningful way that respects the rights of all interested parties, and as part of a “grand bargain” let Iran develop its country without interference from Israel, the U.S., NATO, or the Saudis? Moreover, removal of sanctions would lead to more, not less, peace in Central and South Asia, where regional development would be more consistent with the economic and cultural needs of the people there than anything we have been trying to impose.

    Peace comes, among other things, from shared interests, trade, cultural exchange, the building of infrastructure that improves the standard of living and future opportunity of the people across national borders. If it is to be stable, it can’t come from coercion with a gun.

    The U.S. may think that it has an advantage in its weaponry, but that can be reverse engineered, and it certainly can be mass produced faster elsewhere (China, maybe?), and at some point even the technological advantage could be lost to someone else. (And, begin to conceive a drone war where all of the pipelines and electrical grids and infrastructure are now at risk because our behavior has made it so. Apart from the weapons manufacturers and the banks financing them, who would win that one?)

    Moreover, there is just so long that an illegitimate policy can survive before the truth begins to permeate a nation’s collective consciousness so that hearts and minds are changed and the people no longer support what is clearly wrong. Up to now, the government, in concert with the mainstream media have done good job of feeding “muzak” to the public, but that can’t last forever. Whether we like it or not, we live in a multilateral world where a “Smart Power” policy exercised as stupid military adventurism has already been contributing to our undoing.

    We should be careful with all of our threats and military preparations- especially with Netanyahu’s finger on the button and in our pocket- since, apart from what might happen in the Gulf region, and in the Levant, the U.S., NATO and the Western oil and gas companies could lose in a major way in Central Asia where they are more vulnerable than meets the eye. So, for example, were Azerbaijan to fall, the BTC pipeline would be up for grabs, or even if it weren’t, that pipeline would still be vulnerable. Where would that leave Britain that so relies on the predation of BP for its economic health, or Turkey that has dreams of a Pan-Turkic empire, or Israel that would get the boot from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and lose the billions of dollars it is visualizing from its part in the TAPI project, or the U.S.?

  4. Jeff P
    June 19, 2012 at 15:31

    …., the issue has been the development of an Iranian sphere of influence following the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq, and the pressure Iran could place on oil-producing states on the Arabian Peninsula. Iran has long felt that its natural role as leader in the Persian Gulf has been thwarted, first by the Ottomans, then the British and now by the Americans, and they have wanted to create what they regard as the natural state of things….when the Assad regime falls in Syria….turn out the lights…the parties over…

    • incontinent reader
      June 20, 2012 at 00:50

      It is probably true that Iran would expand its influence through trade, but for the past century where has it shown any inclination to invade its neighbors- apart from the last Shah’s dreams of grandeur (and, perhaps, questionable mental stability), but he was ours and Israel’s proxy and ally?

      If Israel really wanted to solve the Palestinian issue and its remaining territorial issues with Syria and Lebanon, the antagonism with Iran would go away. But, one must be honest, it really does not want a solution other than the eventual expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank, permanent control over the Golan, and hegemony in the neighborhood to the extent that it will use force whenever it feels it necessary to keep everyone in line. That is now built into its policy with the Palestinians. And, it never apologizes for its own violation of another’s rights, even when the target is an ally like the U.S. So, for example, its lobbying efforts to release Pollard, starting from Peres and Netanyahu, was as shameless an example of that as any, given that Pollard’s espionage was perhaps the more damaging to our national security than any other incident of spying, or given that Israel has been given a pass many times when it has been under active investigation by the FBI for many other serious incidents of bribery and espionage.

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