On Monday, Iran and the United States did something these two countries have not been able to bring themselves to do, despite the clear need, for over a generation: they officially, publicly talked to each other. To you and me, this may not seem like much to brag about. They did not announce any historic concessions or in any other way repair the longstanding errors in mutual policy positions in order to renew a relationship that is, unavoidably, an important one in the current world. Indeed, they did not even agree to review that bungled relationship. They just talked.
But countries are not like us. You and I are, of course, rational individuals who calculate our interests and behave accordingly. Countries, in contrast, are vain and emotional creatures much enamored of standing high on questionable principles, much to their own harm.
At least they talked, and that would seem a step in the right direction. But when emotions are high, distrust proven by history* to be well deserved, politicians on both sides ready to exploit the situation for personal advantage, and everything fogged over by gross misperception of the other side, talking needs to be approached with finesse if it is to lead to progress.
[*Anyone who doubts that history gives the two sides good reason to distrust each other should read A Very Thin Line, Theodore Draper's embarrassing account of the Iran-Contra escapade.]
Washington sent a massive naval armada to Iran’s coast only days before the talks began. The U.S. has the power to destroy Iran; Iran does not have the power to destroy the U.S. The U.S. has recently invaded two countries on Iran’s border; Iran has not invaded anyone. The U.S. has also threatened Iran in other ways than the above-mentioned armada.
What reaction might one expect from the weaker side in a negotiation, when the stronger side is on the offensive, pressuring the weaker party both with force and (in the U.S.-Iran case) diplomatic pressure to make concessions? Concessions by the weaker side in such a situation come very close to surrender. Therefore, the stronger side should only expect success with such a strategy in a situation where surrender logically seems the only way out for the weaker side. Otherwise, such a strategy is likely to fail.
Iran is intrinsically the major regional power (i.e., in terms of geography, resources, population size); it is currently not the major regional power only because the U.S. has armed Israel, from which anti-Iranian threats have been flowing, to the teeth. But Iran’s position is steadily improving; Iran is a rising regional power with, if it can learn to manage its internal affairs, time on its side. The U.S., albeit far ahead, is spread thin since it has global aspirations, and is rapidly dissipating its power on ill-planned adventures. Moreover, these adventures are having the ironic affect of themselves contributing to Iran’s improving international position. The deeper the U.S. sinks into the Iraqi quagmire, the more astute Iran’s relatively moderate policy appears. The longer the Palestinian people are denied justice, the more reasonable Iran’s support for them appears and the more popular Iran is likely to become on the Arab street. The longer Lebanon’s Shi’a are marginalized in Lebanese politics, the more grateful they are likely to be for Iran’s support. The longer Syrian aspirations to get back its Golan Heights are denied and the more Syria is pressured, the closer it is likely to move to Iran. Time is on Iran’s side: what reason is there to anticipate that Iran will surrender?
Moreover, when two sides are face-to-face and looking for a way out, it is up to the more powerful—the side that can most easily afford to do so—to make the first concession. It is not reasonable to expect the weaker party to start from its relatively bad position and then promptly make it worse: to the weak, this looks like the first step on a slippery slope. It is also humiliating, and for a country that has been humiliated so many times by the West, accepting yet another slap in the face is not likely to be career-enhancing for the officials involved.
In addition to the above general reasons why threats and pressure are unlikely to persuade any rising power to make unilateral concessions is the specific nature of the Iranian regime. After its Islamic Revolution, Iran set up a highly factionalized government with numerous institutional checks and balances to prevent any faction from gaining control. The result may protect Iran from absolute dictatorship but also makes it difficult for Tehran to set and maintain a clear policy course. When the U.S. sends simultaneous contradictory signals (e.g., a threatening naval armada and an offer to negotiate), this is an open invitation to Iranian factions to focus on one signal and ignore the other. Each side in any internal Iranian foreign policy debate can honestly point to solid evidence supporting whatever interpretation of U.S. intentions it wishes to make. This contradictory U.S. policy thus seems likely to exacerbate factionalism in Iran and thereby inhibit the ability of Tehran to select and adhere to any consistent policy line. In a word, the U.S. strategy will make it more difficult for Tehran to reach agreement with the U.S.
Finally, Iran has all the reasons (trade, security) for being involved with Iraq as the U.S. has for being involved with Canada – plus additional ones from the common Shi’ite heritage of the two countries. Iraq is of critical interest to Iran. There may be some attractive trade-offs that could be made that would persuade Tehran to limit its activities in Iraq in return for something, but they would have to be very persuasive. Logically, one can only anticipate rising Iranian involvement in Iraq.
So the strategy being employed by the U.S. of setting the stage for talks with threats and pressure seem unlikely to lead to success, which raises the question of why such an approach has been adopted. Do American leaders fail to understand that the world has evolved past the old gunboat diplomacy stage, or is success in the talks simply not Washington’s goal? Whatever the truth, Washington’s approach to these talks makes it likely that they will accomplish much less than might otherwise have been the case.