Iran’s Long-Game Diplomatic Strategy

Iran has sought negotiations with the U.S. for two decades, but both Democratic and Republican administrations favored hostility demanded by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, Iran found a track sacrificing much of its nuclear program to achieve a breakthrough, writes Gareth Porter for Middle East Eye.

By Gareth Porter

Now that Iran nuclear deal is completed, the attention of Western news media and political commentators is predictably focused overwhelmingly on the opposition to the agreement within the U.S. Congress and from Israel and the Saudi-led Sunni Arab coalition.

That media lens misses the real significance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is that Iran succeeded in negotiating an agreement with the United States that upheld its national right to a nuclear program despite the obvious vast disparity in power between the two states. That power disparity between the global hegemon and a militarily weak but politically influential regional “middle power” has shaped not just the negotiating strategies of the two sides during the negotiations but, more importantly, how they came about in the first place.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

The news media have adopted the Obama administration’s view that negotiations were the result of Iran responding to international sanctions. The problem with that conventional view is not that Iran wasn’t eager to get the sanctions removed, but that it was motivated to do so long before the United States was willing to negotiate.

In fact, Iran had long viewed its nuclear program not only in terms of energy and scientific advancement but also as a way of inducing the United States to negotiate an end to the extraordinary legal status in which Iran has been placed for so long. Even during the Bill Clinton administration Iranian strategists wanted to get the United States to move toward more normal relations, but Clinton was determined to be the most pro-Israeli administration in U.S. history, and instead imposed a complete trade embargo on Iran.

Clinton eventually offered a “dialogue” with Iran but made it clear that he had no intention of giving up the sanctions against Iran. The lesson that Iranian strategists, including then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and now President Hassan Rouhani, learned from the Clinton years was that the United States would only negotiate the end of its sanctions against Iran if was convinced that the cost and risk of refusing to negotiate was too high.

It was during Clinton’s second term that Iranian strategists began to discuss the idea that Iran’s nuclear program was its main hope for engaging the hegemonic power.

Iranian political scientist Jalil Roshandel, who worked on a research project for the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s think tank in 1997-1998, recalled in an interview with this writer that influential figures (including an adviser to veteran Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati) had told him during that period that they believed a uranium enrichment program would provide leverage in negotiating a removal of the sanctions.

Iran tried to use what it assumed was U.S. and European concern about its enrichment program – which had not yet begun enriching uranium – to gain more leverage in negotiations with the British, French and German governments from November 2003 to spring 2005.

But those negotiations were fruitless, mainly because President George W. Bush’s administration was interested in regime change in Iran and therefore disdained the idea of actual negotiations over its nuclear program. The Bush administration ordered its European allies not to respond to a March 2005 Iranian proposal that offered to limit the Iranian program to a minimum.

The problem was that the Bush administration still didn’t take the Iranian nuclear program seriously, so the power disparity between Washington and Tehran was still too great. And it wasn’t only the neoconservative-influenced Bush administration that believed it was so powerful that it need not reach a compromise with Iran.

We now know that President Barack Obama relied on efforts to coerce Iran rather than negotiating with it during his first four years in office. He approved a plan for an unprecedented cyber-attack on Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility in 2009 as the first move in a strategy of pressure on Iran aimed at forcing the Islamic republic to give up its enrichment program.

For the Obama administration, intrusive financial sanctions were not originally conceived as a way to bring about a negotiated agreement with Iran. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly presented the “diplomatic path” with Iran as a way to “gain credibility and influence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime as tight and crippling as we want it to be.” In other words, diplomacy was actually a gimmick to achieve the administration’s real goal of coercion.

In 2012, when Obama was offering talks on Iran’s nuclear program for the first time, he was still committed to the same strategy of coercion. The effort to bring Iran to the negotiating table was accompanied by yet another U.S. cyber-attack this time on the Iranian oil and gas industry.

Only in 2013, during his second term, did Obama’s administration give up the aim of forcing Iran to end enrichment entirely and agree to actually negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue. That decision came only after Iran had increased the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to more than 9,000, with another 9,000 centrifuges installed but never connected, accumulated a large stockpile of low enriched uranium, and even more alarming to the United States – began enriching uranium to 20 percent.

So the main back story of the nuclear agreement is that it was Iranian counter-pressure on the United States through its nuclear program that finally compelled the Obama administration to change its strategy of relying mainly on coercion and begin the negotiations that Iran had wanted for more than two decades.

The most important story of the agreement itself, moreover, is how the Obama administration, supported by its European allies, tried to maintain the sanctions for long as possible in the implementation process. But in the end U.S. negotiators finally gave up that objective, even though, as Iranian diplomats told me in Vienna, they found the American “emotional attachment” to sanctions still manifesting itself in the last days of negotiations in the language of the UN Security Council resolution.

The basic inequality of power of the two main protagonists, which would normally have allowed the United States to prevail on the issue, had been reduced dramatically by two factors: the lifting of sanctions was so central to Iranian interests that its negotiators would undoubtedly have walked away from the talks if the United States had not relented, and the Obama administration had become committed to completing the negotiations simply by virtue of having made such an agreement its central foreign policy initiative.

The Iran nuclear agreement thus illustrates the elemental importance of the distribution of power but also the possibility of a weaker state achieving its vital interests in negotiations with the hegemonic power against what might appear to be very long odds by exploiting their source of leverage to the maximum with patience, courage and careful calculation.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story originally appeared at Middle East Eye,]

7 comments for “Iran’s Long-Game Diplomatic Strategy

  1. Abe
    July 15, 2015 at 20:24

    In both this Consortium News article and a similar article by Gareth Porter published after the conclusion of the long-awaited Iran “nuclear deal”, there is an insinuation that somehow Iran “got” something it did not deserve.

    Unwittingly or not, Porter is soft-pedaling Israeli propaganda here.

    The Iranians have long been seeking “normal relations” with the United States because it is in their national interest.

    Iran wants an end to the “extraordinary legal status” it was placed under by the United States because there was never any basis for it.

    The hegemon has no need for “compromise”.

    The hegemon does not “negotiate”.

    Obama is under no pressure to reach a “deal” with Iran.

    The reality is: the economic sanctions against Iran are an act of war.

    A “deal” has been reached but rest assured, something yet more wicked this way comes.

    • Abe
      July 15, 2015 at 20:55

      I see the Consortium News and Middle East Eye versions are identical.

      In any case, the real goal of coercion has not been surrendered by the hegemon.

      • Peter Loeb
        July 16, 2015 at 06:25


        Once more, thanks to “Abe for his comments and insight.

        —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. Abe
    July 15, 2015 at 17:01

    the cascade effects of the eternal Security Dilemma, innate to global affairs writ large, means this ‘new day dawning’ in American-Iranian relations could ultimately also be the cause for worsening interaction with Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few. To recap:

    – America opens discussions as it is domestically conflicted as to whether this deal with Iran is positive or negative. Regardless, negotiations and an anticipated deal is expected.
    – Israel will never see it as anything but negative, leading to an increased sense of insecurity.
    – Saudi Arabia will agree, on this one thing at least, with Israel.
    – Turkey will hedge its bets but also look upon the agreement with concern and ‘healthy skepticism.’
    – America will try to ‘soothe’ hurt feelings by giving Israel a massive increase in defense aid, likely followed by similar possibilities for Saudi Arabia and Turkey. All three will use this ‘defense’ aid in a manner that will seem decidedly ‘offensive’ in military capacity terms.
    – Iran will see those actions as a direct act of ‘potential aggression’ against itself, subsequently causing internal domestic pressure to not honor the new agreement that set all of this behavior off in the first place.
    – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Turkey will see this Iranian ‘reaction’ as actually ‘action,’ the EXACT action in fact they always warned about and had been waiting for from the very first moment the Americans engaged Iran.
    – America will reopen discussions domestically, perhaps even elevating to a formal legal level, to consider if this deal was not just negative or positive, but if someone somewhere somehow had done something illegal to broker it. Expect those accusations to come from whichever party is not currently holding the White House.

    Hammer and Nail: Spinning War from Peace in Iran’s Nuke Deal
    By Matthew Crosston

    Dr. Matthew Crosston is a Professor of Political Science, is the Miller Chair for Industrial and International Security and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies (ISIS) program at Bellevue University. His research agenda continues to address counter-terrorism, intelligence analysis, failed democratization, and cyber war/ethics. His works have been translated into Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Spanish, and Uzbek. In 2013 Crosston was named the Outstanding Instructor by the International Association for Intelligence Education (IAFIE).

  3. Abe
    July 15, 2015 at 13:17

    Iran’s Nuclear Program – Then and Now
    Documents from 1970s Presage Issues Surrounding July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Deal with P5+1

    Despite the basic differences between the two sides, and the degree of mistrust that has characterized their relations, Iran and its negotiating partners managed to reach fundamental nuclear accords in the 1970s — under both a Republican and a Democratic U.S. president, respectively — as well as now in 2015. In the earlier case, the 1979 revolution intervened before the agreement could be signed. Today’s accord still requires congressional approval, among other steps, before it enters into force. But the parallels after so many years and despite the disparity in political outlook inside Iran, then and now, are intriguing.

  4. July 15, 2015 at 10:21

    Opponents of the deal are well-funded, ramp up Iran PR campaign to challenge their warmongering.

    Stand up to the war hawks!

    ‘Right-wing pro-Israeli groups mobilizing massive money to kill Iran deal…


  5. July 15, 2015 at 10:12

    Can America Evolve With Russia and the Rest of Humanity?

    But for evolution there needs to be a dialectic process of humility, compassion and truth-finding. In official America there is no such dialectic. There is only a locked-in, dead-end groove of deadness and more deadness, fear and war. Fear and war. Fear and war.

    If not evolution, then revolution is required in America, if greater humanity is to progress.

    Give Iran a break!

    Let free markets and free trade and “non-interference” become a reflection of the natural system of democracy and liberty.

Comments are closed.