Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Diplomacy with Iran: A win-win situation

By Mahmood Monshipouri

Hassan Rouhani

It is easy to be cynical about diplomacy with Iran, considering the complexities of U.S. domestic politics and the relentless defiance that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani faces from his own domestic hardliners.  We should not allow, however, conservative camps in either country to rock the diplomatic boat, much less sink it.

Why? Because sanctions are often assumed to be an alternative to a negotiated agreement.  But what if sanctions fail?  Does the countdown to war begin following such a failure?  In many cases, the sanctions regime alone, as a political tool and especially if not multilaterally enforced, has had limited effectiveness.

One expert seriously doubts the practical wisdom of the sanctions policy in producing an agreement, arguing that states that impose sanctions, despite the knowledge that they will fail to coerce the target state, increase the costs and risks for themselves by increasing the probability that the sanctioning state will ultimately resort to force.1 That diplomacy with Iran should spur a much-needed sense of urgency among U.S. policymakers, in the wake of the many and varied challenges that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region presents, should go without saying.

Hassan Rouhani

As the deadline for concluding a deal with Iran over its nuclear program draws closer (Nov. 24, 2014), the extension of the deadline, if need be, might arguably be a good policy.  The cardinal principle of diplomacy is trust.  Given that in the last three decades we have seen little trust between Iran and the United States, it is essential that we turn our attention to confidence-building measures that can bridge the trust deficit.

Changing the paradigm from mistrust to trusting each other will not happen overnight.  Arguing that “deception is in Iranians’ DNA” is not going to help either.

Changing course

It is past time to change course and pay attention to the other end of this bargain.  The West cannot simply demand a zero-enrichment and an end to Iran’s civil nuclear program.  Mutual respect and equal treatment is in fact the key, and so is rethinking the notion that military muscle can solve all the problems.

The contention that a successful U.S. air strike would halt Iran’s nuclear program for at least five years remains questionable.Likewise, the two-track policy of the United States (sanctions and diplomacy) has not generated an effective mixture of both carrot and stick incentives, failing to compel Iran to sign an accord satisfactory to all parties concerned.  If nothing else, this policy has pushed Iran toward China and Russia insofar as commercial ties are concerned.

Despite several different logjams in the negotiations — including a disagreement on the number of centrifuges that Iranians consider essential for their nuclear program, as well as the timetable for and extent of sanctions relief as a key sticking point in the talks — a relationship between Iran and the United States should not come down to either diplomacy or conflict.

Can Iran be trusted to honor a deal?  We have negotiated with rogue regimes in the past.  I argue that there is no feasible alternative to negotiating with Iran and that the sanctions policy currently practiced by the United States, however desirable, is not a sustainable, long-term solution.  There is a rare opportunity to shift U.S. foreign policy from one of “balance of power” to that of “balance of interests” insofar as negotiations with Iran are concerned.

Success in this regard, some observers suggest, could alleviate Iranian security concerns, prompt Iranian recognition of the rights and interests of Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf, and eventually promote a gradual political evolution in Iran. 3 Others have asserted that given that anti-Americanism has been a key part of the identity of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy since 1979, such unprecedented open discussion in the Iranian society regarding reaching a deal with the United States demonstrates that we may be on the verge of a possible shift in Iran’s strategic thinking.

Not surprisingly, a large majority of the Iranian population favors normal relations with the United States.  That is why one expert reminds us that America is more popular in Iran today than in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Egypt — all three known to be major U.S. strategic allies in the region.4

From the standpoint of domestic politics, however, both Iran’s President Rouhani and President Obama encounter serious challenges at home to a prospective deal.  The failure to reach an accord is likely to significantly weaken the attempts made by Rouhani to move Iran toward rapprochement with the United States.  For President Obama, were more sanctions to be imposed on Iran as punitive measures, a recalcitrant House of Representatives and Senate could potentially disrupt diplomacy with Iran.

It is worth noting that the 2014 mid-term elections in the United States demonstrated the general public’s disapproval of the current state of the U.S. economy.  What, then, are we to make of such results in light of the fact that the national turnout was reportedly 36.3 percent?5   Not much in terms of the foreign policy orientation of the country, some say.  Most news media attribute low voter turnouts to several reasons, including anger, apathy, and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of many campaign ads.  It is not unusual for a two-term Presidents’ party to lose mid-term elections in their sixth year in office.  Since the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) in U.S. history only three presidents (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) have had their party gain seats in mid-term elections.  In general, however, mid-term election results have drawn considerable attention to the state of the economy — if not necessarily U.S. foreign policy.

The nagging question persists: What does control of both houses of Congress and the Senate by the Republicans mean for potential nuclear détente with Iran? With a Nov. 24 deadline for a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program looming large, the new shake-up in U.S. politics could prove problematic for a deal that might very well end hostility between the two nations in coming years. If U.S. domestic politics get in the way of cutting a deal with Iran, the likelihood of widening fissures in the international consensus on U.N. sanctions toward Iran could jeopardize the P5+1 diplomatic talks — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, and Iran. It should be noted, however, that Republicans in both houses have yet to offer a workable alternative to negotiations.

There are reasons to be concerned that some of the P5+1 members — particularly Russia — could break from the diplomatic bloc if the talks were to drag on too long.  Russians have recently reached a new deal with Iran to construct new nuclear plants at the Bushehr site.

This deal’s significance clearly lies in the fact that it is a barter arrangement, whereby Russia accepts Iranian oil as a payment for the nuclear reactor. Experts argue that although such a deal poses no proliferation risk, it runs counter to the US policy of isolating Iran economically. The unraveling of such a unique opportunity to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran could have disastrous repercussions for both Iran and the United States, intensifying the continuing tensions between the two, and prolonging the already deleterious state of the region at large.

New incentive

There is a need to chart a fresh approach informed by newly emerging U.S. national-security interests. Absent such an approach, this unique opportunity will be squandered. Moreover, the challenge of degrading and ultimately defeating the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) has raised the stakes and has had the unexpected effect of injecting common sense into diplomacy with Iran.  Iran and the United States now share a common threat.

Beyond routing ISIS, Iran and the United States have other shared regional interests, including containing the spread of sectarianism, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a possible rapprochement between Iran and its Arab neighbors and Turkey that have been so negatively impacted by disagreements over Syria’s crisis, with Iran supporting the Bashar Assad regime and others vehemently opposing it.

Undoubtedly, the cooperation between Iran and the United States on the one hand, and between Iran and its neighbors on the other, has never been more imperative and prudent than today when the danger of growing sectarianism and penetration of the ISIS in the region threatens the stability of the status quo.

While it is naïve to assume that the interim nuclear deal with Iran will truly mark the beginning of the U.S. realignment toward Iran, it is safe to argue that any improvements in the relations between the two on the nuclear issue may contribute to the search for a compromise in the Syrian crisis.  Increasingly, the margin for poor judgment under such circumstances has drastically curtailed for all players involved in the region.

Amid these new uncertainties, the failure to reach a deal with Iran will be marked by strategic blunders and missed opportunities to work with Iranians in areas of mutual interest.  One analyst perceptively notes that the odds of resolving the nuclear standoff is now much more favorable than the past, and that resolving this issue is far more feasible compared to a whole host of intractable problems that the MENA region encounters.

It thus follows that if the parties reach a nuclear accord, this will unmistakably be a game-changer in the region.  Despite various snags in the negotiations, it is in neither side’s interests to forgo diplomatic efforts, nor is it conducive to stability and peace in the region.


[1]  Robert A. Pape, “Why Economic Sanctions Still Do Not Work,” International Security, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall 1997, pp. 90-136.

[2]  Matthew Kroenig, A Time to Attack: the Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014.

[3] Thomas R. Mattair, Global Security Watch: Iran, A Reference Handbook, 2008.

[4]  Mohsen Milani, “Is US-Iran Détente Possible,” Current History, Vol. 12, Issue 758, December 2013, pp. 345-348.

[5]  See an editorial piece, “The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 Years,” The New York Times, November 12, 2014, p. A22.

[6]  Trita Parsi, “Why Did Iran Diplomacy Work this Time Around?” Insight Turkey, Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer 2014, pp. 47-54; see especially p. 54.

Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, is a visiting professor of Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, and is editor of Inside the Islamic Republic: Social Change in Post-Khomeini Iran (London: Hurst Publishers, forthcoming).