Poisoning the US-Iran Detente

Israel, Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran hope to poison improved U.S.-Iranian relations by blocking sanctions relief for Iran, even at the cost of losing new restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, an emerging dilemma assessed by ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

It certainly was a whirlwind week for Iranian-U.S. relations. A very good week, too, for anyone interested in the peaceful resolution of differences between the United States and Iran, and anyone genuinely interested in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon, a goal achievable with assurance only through the peaceful resolution of differences.

At a gathering at a New York hotel at which President Hassan Rouhani spoke on Thursday, the mood among the many people in the audience who have those interests was bordering on euphoric, there were many expressions of optimism and references to a sea change in relations.

That event climaxed when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who strode into the room late in the session, came to the podium to give an upbeat report on the discussions he had just concluded with Secretary of State John Kerry and the other P5+1 foreign ministers. Then the next day, as the climax of the entire week, was the presidential phone conversation, which has repeatedly been described by the adjective “historic.”

All well and good, but with the week of euphoria over, any prospects for progress toward an agreement about the Iranian nuclear program face two big impediments. First, of course, are the forces that have opposed all along any agreement between the United States and Iran, will continue to oppose any agreement, and will see the setback they suffered this past week as a reason to try harder to step up their game.

Those forces are led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and assisted, as Daniel Levy summarizes the line-up, by “American hawks and neoconservatives, Republicans who will oppose Obama on anything, and some Democrats with a more Israel-centric bent.”

As Levy further notes, the efforts of these forces “will be concentrated on escalating threats against Iran, increasing sanctions, and raising the bar to an impossibly high place on the terms of a nuclear deal. All this will serve, intentionally, one has to assume, to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran who are equally opposed to a deal.”

The other impediment grows partly out of the euphoria itself, which aids the aforementioned bar-raising and has set the stage for unreasonable standards being applied to Iranian actions over the next several months. We now have a situation somewhat akin to the game of expectations that is played during U.S. presidential primary seasons, in which high expectations are undesirable because subsequent performance is measured against the expectations rather than against some objective standard.

When expectations are not met, momentum is lost and a campaign may falter. Expect to hear many comments over the next couple of months about how the Iranians have not met delivered on the expectations placed on them.

A frequent theme of comments already made during Rouhani’s time in New York is that talk and tone and a friendly style are fine but what really matters are specific, concrete actions. Of course actions are what matters in the end, but most such comments do not specify exactly what actions we should expect Iran to take now.

Moreover, and just as important, they do not specify what Iranian actions would be reasonable to expect in the context of actions that the United States and its P5+1 partners are, or are not, taking. If the expectation is for Tehran to make substantial unilateral concessions or changes in its nuclear activities with nothing in return, then we are dwelling in the same fantasy world of those in the West and Israel who do not want any agreement at all and make unmeetable demands to try to preclude one.

If crippling sanctions have helped to bring about the change that has already taken place on the Iranian side, as promoters of still more sanctions are quick to argue, why would, and why should, Iran give up the store or give up anything without getting sanctions relief in return?

The actions that will matter the most will be proposals made at the negotiating table, with the P5+1 and in bilateral U.S.-Iranian negotiations. That necessarily means actions by both sides. Any reasonable objective observer looking at where the negotiations left off earlier this year would conclude that there needs to be at least as much action, and probably more, on the P5+1 side as on the Iranian side.

The last proposal the P5+1 made would entail only minor sanctions relief (compared with the vast panoply of sanctions currently in place) in return for substantial restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities that get to the core of Western objectives. The Iranians are justified in viewing this as an offer of peanuts and a demand for meat.

The Iranians, too, have expectations and want to see concrete actions. With the change that has taken place on their own side, they understandably have all the more expectation for change on the other side. Having been given much reason to doubt whether the United States really wants an agreement or instead is just using negotiations to stall for time while sanctions inflict still more damage, the Iranians have been looking mostly for two things.

The first is assurance that the objective of the United States involves acceptance of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a legitimate interlocutor and as the owner and operator of a peaceful nuclear program. President Obama went a long way toward addressing that topic, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly and in his remarks following the phone call with Rouhani, by explicitly disavowing an objective of regime change and accepting the concept of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program.

But that is still just talk, not action. Apart from publicly assigning to the secretary of state the responsibility for making something happen, we unfortunately have yet to see from the administration the sort of specific, concrete actions that would make things happen.

That gets to the second big thing the Iranians are looking for: major sanctions relief in return for the sorts of nuclear restrictions that are being demanded of them. Amid all the talk about “testing” Iranian intentions, Leslie Gelb correctly observes that “Obama has to test himself as well and put some smart compromises on the table to jump-start serious negotiations. According to administration officials, however, he hasn’t gotten close to this approach yet.”

There is too much of an attitude in Washington that the ball is still in the Iranians’ court. In thinking about whose half of the court the ball is in right now, we should note that this whole issue is not an issue because the Iranians made it one or wanted it to be one.

They are doing with their nuclear activities what several other nations have been doing and that they believe with good reason they have a right to do as well. They had no reason or desire to make a stink about it. The issue is a big stinking issue because people outside of Iran have made it so, and it is outside Iran that much of the action needs to be taken now to resolve the issue.

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.)

6 comments for “Poisoning the US-Iran Detente

  1. borat
    October 1, 2013 at 19:46

    There was a little guy with a funny mustache that also charmed the world along with his sauve associate, herr von Ribbentrop, with soothing words of peace, and not to worry about Germany’s designs on other countries. Iran has a coincidental air of reminiscing this scenario in our time. Words are cheap, keep up the sanctions until concrete proof that Iran’s ambitions are “peaceful” whether nuclear or influencial regarding support of terrorists worldwide, and destabilizing the Middle Eastern countries.

  2. Jim-jams
    September 29, 2013 at 20:55

    Wonderful that the U.S. is finally starting to facing up to reality before the nuclear clock moved any closer to midnight. Let us hope that Israel, with all it’s demands for Iran to reveal their Nuclear programs will finally do the decent thing & also reveal their Nuclear arsenal. The prospect of Israel, the Prussia of the Middle East & the Wahhabi Saudi Govt. aligning is a terrifying thought ! we must realise the nuclear clock has only moved back a minute or two.

  3. incontinent reader
    September 29, 2013 at 17:43

    One must repeatedly identify the obstructionists and their arguments, and do so with some measure of detail, and then lead the charge against them in multiple activist ways to counteract the effect of their lobbying. It is possible to win, if the public knows why the obstructionism is against its interest, what will happen if the obstructionists succeed, and that, yes, there is a real chance of success if people stand up en masse.

  4. borat
    September 29, 2013 at 09:37

    Healthy scepticism is good. Even if Iran dismantles its nuclear program, it remains the world’s #1 sponsor of terrorism, and aims to be the controlling power in the middle east. Many Arab countries as Israel feel the same way.

    • John
      September 30, 2013 at 15:05

      With the Arab countries, it’s more a problem of Shiite vs Sunni, something which will have to be solved. As for terrorism Borat, did you forget the past with the Hagana, the Irgun, the Stern Gang, the killing of Bernadotte, letter bombs to British, American diplomats and others who were interfering with Zionist ambitions. We have Sabra & Shatila and a war with no other cause than an attempt to kill Arafat and his peace deal with Rabin, and to attain Lebanese land up to the Litani river Zionists consider part of Greater Israel. Then we have the murder of Iranian scientists some of whom had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. We had the Montreal attempted murder (home set ablaze) of an ex-Israeli intelligence agent who had started to tell some embarrasing truths. The wicked treatment of the indigenous peoples of Palestine all because you have a dream which doesn’t include equality to those who already live there. And the fictional historical stories of displacement.
      Yes Jews were badly treated at times, that was wicked too but two wrongs never make a right. So don’t overlook the atrocities perpetrated by Zionists in their quest when you criticize others.

      • Bandolero
        September 30, 2013 at 21:03

        “With the Arab countries, it’s more a problem of Shiite vs Sunni, something which will have to be solved.”

        No, that’s a big lie – spread by the GCC dictators and their zionist backers.

        There is no “problem of Shiite vs Sunni” but there exists an Israli- and GCC-backed sectarian propaganda- and terrorism-campaign against any friends of Iran, which in turn is an attempt to turn the I/P-conflict into a “problem of Shiite vs Sunni.”

        In reality the “problem of Shiite vs Sunni” is totally one-sided sectarian terorism. The wahhabi jihadis have learned from their GCC hate-preachers that they should become takfiris and attack all infidels like Shia, Allawi Christians and so on, but there is no Shia terrorism against Sunni.

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