US-Iran Talks at a Crossroads

Iran continues to signal a readiness to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program in exchange for relief on sanctions but Israeli leaders and American neocons still are pushing the Obama administration toward a heightened confrontation and war, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Only those outside Iran who are determined to subvert the prospect of a better relationship with the Islamic Republic can deny that there now is a major opportunity for achieving one and specifically for settling the nuclear issue in a manner fully protective of U.S. interests.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sitting next to President Hassan Rouhani and addressing the cabinet. (Iranian government photo)

Legitimate questions have been raised about how much flexibility can be expected from the Iranian side when, under the convoluted Iranian constitution, it is not the president but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say on many issues. But it would be impossible for Rouhani, who has had a close and longstanding relationship with Khamenei, and the president’s administration to do and say everything they have over the past few weeks if this ran against the wishes of the supreme leader.

Now Khamenei, in addition to past indications of his views such as placing a religious imprimatur on a rejection of nuclear weapons, has given more direct evidence that he also is thinking in terms of a different course for U.S.-Iranian relations. He gave a speech to commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that paralleled in important respects a speech that Rouhani had just given to the IRGC.

Khamenei indicated that he is quite in favor of “correct” diplomacy as long as Iran’s honor is protected. “Heroic flexibility” is how the supreme leader’s own staff translated into English the concept that he was propounding.

Khamenei also, and this is where his speech most resembled Rouhani’s, said the IRGC should not get immersed in politics. This admonition indirectly recognized the potential of hardliners in the Guard and elsewhere in the regime to be spoilers. Even the supreme leader cannot necessarily carry the day if such hardliners are given sufficient ammunition.

Unfortunately some outside Iran, led most conspicuously by the current prime minister of Israel, are doing their best to give them ammunition. Benjamin Netanyahu continues his effort to stoke perpetual hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Last year in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly he entertained us with cartoon bombs. This year he will make demands that include what he fully knows would be deal-stoppers (specifically, an end to all Iranian enrichment of uranium). His efforts are most conspicuously being aided in the United States by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who is so amenable to letting Netanyahu lead the United States into a war with Iran that, even before any negotiators have had a chance to sit down following Rouhani’s election, he has announced his intention to introduce a resolution calling for such a war.

The late Abba Eban, the silver-tongued Israeli foreign minister, once famously said that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The circumstances, and Palestinian preferences and policies, that underlay his remark changed greatly long ago. But his apothegm might apply to much of the history of the U.S.-Iranian relationship.

It would, tragically, apply all the more if the current opportunity is missed, either because of the ammunition being supplied to Iranian hardliners or because the side led by the United States simply does not put on the negotiating table the sanctions relief necessary to strike a deal.

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.)

3 comments for “US-Iran Talks at a Crossroads

  1. rosemerry
    September 18, 2013 at 14:33

    The constant picking on Iran, which was a friend to Israel and the USA when it was under the Shah and his vicious SAVAK, is completely superfluous and illogical. Israel refuses the chances it has been given to get along with its neighbours (eg Arab Peace Plan 2002) but prefers to drum up false allegations and fears against a non-belligerent “enemy”, Iran. The USA and the world would also be much better off in every way accepting Iran as a sovereign country, a partner, rather than pretending to fear an attack which has never even been threatened, unlike the behaviour of the USI to it. How anyone can believe the parrotted fearmongering of Netanyahu, Lindsey Graham, McCain, Kerry, Obama is evidence of lack of any sense .

  2. F. G. Sanford
    September 18, 2013 at 11:55

    Crossroads indeed. Persia has been the crossroads geographically, geopolitically and economically since historians began recording East-West relations. Cyrus the Great, referred to in some Jewish texts as, “the anointed of the Lord”, is credited with the first historically important declaration of human rights. Alexander the Great conquered Persia. But when he discovered that his soldiers had desecrated the tomb of Cyrus, he had them executed.

    Today, Iran is a technologically advanced, well educated society with vast resources and immense economic potential. I would be the first to admit that it’s no paragon of democracy, but neither is our ally, Saudi Arabia. As the Shanghai Cooperation Council pursues expanded trade and development of infrastructure including rail, pipelines and highways, Western powers find themselves “pivoting to the East”. Surrounding the Pacific with peripheral military assets, they are poised to become the hungry spectators drooling at the window of a busy restaurant, lamenting that they lack a reservation. While China has made plans for a future based on trade and cooperation, the West has frittered away myriad opportunities with debilitating and pointless wars. Iran is poised to be a central player in that future.

    America has abandoned its real strength and its real strategic advantage: American ingenuity. Rather than encouraging flourishing creativity at home, it has hitched its wagon to the prospect of maintaining an extravagant lifestyle based on cheap foreign labor and energy. Now that those chickens have come home to roost, Iran’s potential has become the object of envy.

    “Only those outside Iran who are determined to subvert the prospect…” of Iran’s economic progress perceive a threat. Who might “those” be? Had America not betrayed its own legacy for entangling alliances, I can think of only one.

  3. MadBeck
    September 18, 2013 at 11:54

    I find it amusing, though somewhat tragic, that it’s always the fire-eaters in
    South Carolina who always love war. It was they who started our own Civil War 150
    years ago, and got their butts kicked as a result.
    As for the Israelis, they also love war, as long as they’re picking on someone
    weaker than them, or their puppet the United States is doing the fighting and dying.
    Enough war, folks. Our country is falling apart here at home. Let those Israeli punks fight their own wars, without our $3 billion a year in aid, maybe they might suddenly discover that it’s more prudent to try to get along
    with their neighbors.

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