Closing the Respect Gap with Iran

Hassan Rouhani in 2013. >Asia Society/Flickr

Closing the Respect Gap with Iran

In the summer of 2014, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to the front grounds of the foreign ministry buildings in Tehran to shoot a YouTube video, which was then translated into more than half a dozen languages. The minister spoke of the unique opportunity to end the unnecessary nuclear crisis and begin a new chapter of relations with Iran. “Try mutual respect, it works,” the minister assured.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with Federica Mogherini, the Italian diplomat spearheading the European Union’s foreign policy. >European External Action Service/Flickr

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with Federica Mogherini, the Italian diplomat spearheading the European Union’s foreign policy. >European External Action Service/Flickr

Iran’s Web-savvy foreign ministry was not advancing an antiquated or derelict line of thought. Relations between Iran and some Western nations have been marred by decades, at times centuries, of mistrust. As a result, the globalized confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program has become entangled into the greater multigenerational struggle for political independence among Iranians. As Iran expert Michael Axworthy notes, despite the unparalleled application of sanctions and other coercive measures against Iran over the past decade, “the Iranian regime remained defiant,” able to rest “on the conviction among the Iranian people that Iran would never again be bullied or humiliated by foreign powers.”

But the message appears to be resonating in Western capitals. “Part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined,” U.S. President Barack Obama remarked in April. Overcoming these historical obstacles, which of late have been inflamed by Israeli and Saudi insecurities, has required the West to make fundamental policy adjustments in terms of Iran’s nuclear dossier.

Marked progress in the diplomatic realm has been a result of recognition by some members of the negotiating team — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — of their inability to simply impose their will on Iranians through pressure, sanctions and the repeated threat of force. Iranians have “shown themselves willing,” Obama rightly observed, “…to endure hardship when they considered a point of national pride or, in some cases, national survival.” Instead, recent successes in the diplomatic realm have been achieved on the basis of respect for Iran’s sovereignty, acceptance of its status as a dominant regional power and recognition of its rights among members of the international community.

The road has been long and the steps incremental. Hassan Rouhani’s ascendance to Iran’s presidency in June 2013 came with a promise of “constructive engagement” with the international community. To do so effectively, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei transferred some administrative duties of the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) to the office of the president. At the U.N. General Assembly in New York that fall, Rouhani received a 15-minute phone call from Obama — the highest level of contact between the two countries since 1979. A day earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had exchanged emails with Zarif at the sidelines of the General Assembly, in effect ending a three-decade-long diplomatic taboo. The eager foreign ministers quickly orchestrated the presidential phone call.

Within months, the P5+1 and Iran agreed on a Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in Geneva, an interim deal that helped create a political atmosphere conducive to negotiations. Both sides largely held to the terms of the agreement, which were renewed for the length of the negotiations. In early spring, diplomats announced a political understanding on a framework for a comprehensive agreement to be agreed upon by June 30. Attaches of diplomats, lawyers and scientists from Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) states then converged in Vienna to tend to technical footnotes and negotiating novel legalese for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Finally, after 18 days of negotiations, diplomacy triumphed July 14. “No one ever thought it would be easy. Historic decisions never are,” according to a joint statement by Federica Mogherini, the Italian diplomat spearheading the European Union’s foreign policy and the latest representative of the P5+1 to Iran, and Iran’s foreign minister. “With courage, political will, mutual respect and leadership, we delivered on what the world was hoping for: a shared commitment to peace and to join hands in order to make our world safer,” the statement read.

Genuine Non-Alignment

As a result of its geography in the Eurasian heartland, Iran has long acted as a conduit of trade, culture, prosperity, as well as conflict. Through much of the past two centuries, decisions concerning the Iranian population were made in foreign capitals, be it Moscow, London or Washington, who all “watched each other’s actions in Iran with jealousy.”

“Oil,” Ryszard Kapuściński wrote in Shah of Shahs, “is a resource that anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, corrupts.” In 1908, the British found it in Iran. War, fueled by oil fields from far-off subjugated lands, soon consumed Europe and helped bring about the decline of her empires. At the century’s outset, however, as recalled by Axworthy in Revolutionary Iran:

The United States in this phase and later looked like the partner Iran had long hoped to find in the West; anti-colonial, liberal, progressive; modern but not imperialist; a benevolent foreign power that would, for once, treat Iran with respect, as an agent in her own right, not as an instrument.

After 1945, Iran sought to nationalize the illustrious oil industry and expel British imperialists. In the process, the young Shah fled as Mohammad Mossadegh, a staunch nationalist, was elected prime minister by parliament in 1951. When Mossadegh turned to the U.S. during the oil dispute, his government was rebuffed in favor of the British. Domestic political machinations aggravated by covert operations by American and British intelligence agencies resulted in Mossadegh’s ousting some two years later. And although the extent of the West’s involvement in Mossadegh’s overthrow in 1953 has been debated — and remains largely classified — the effects on the Iranian psyche have been lasting nonetheless. Efforts to root out imperial inclinations would climax in 1979, when revolutionaries expelled the Western-installed Pahlavi monarchy, giving way to the Islamic Republic.

“Before the revolution, Iran was in the hands of the U.S., its vital resources were in the hands of the U.S., its political decision-making centers were in the hands of the U.S., decisions to appoint and depose its vital centers were in the hands of the U.S,” Khamenei said in 2009. “Well, this was taken away from them.”


“We asked for weapons [to fight ISIS],” Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said, “and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition.” >jan Sefti/Flickr

It’s never quite so simple, but with these histories in mind, Iranians understand respect as a function of sovereignty, an essential outcome of having successfully fought off colonizers/imperialism and, more recently, a costly and imposed war at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. As a sign of its true independence, since the revolution, Iran has largely “remained independent from outside powers and practiced genuine nonalignment,” Zarif wrote in an article published by Foreign Affairs. This has resulted in “a particular freedom of action within the existing global order.”

The political, economic and technological struggle to maintain a peaceful nuclear energy program — supposedly safeguarded by international law, or what Iran’s foreign ministry refers to as “an unnecessary crisis” — has morphed the issue into a national security concern. Sweeping and ineffective sanctions have hampered Iran’s economy, and in some cases, restricted the flow of humanitarian supplies to hospitals. The heinous murders of several Iranian scientists and an expansive cyberwarfare program further reinforced the widely held notion among Iranians of Western implacability in the talks.

In the face of repeated and illegal military threats by Israel and the United States, Iranians of all classes united in chants of: “Nuclear energy is our absolute right” — a slogan concocted by the Ahmadinejad government. “Iran is paying the price because it wants respect,” Zarif told state-run Press TV in 2013. “We are not going to accept anybody trying to take that respect away from us. That is the bottom line.”

Yet misconceptions regarding Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions continuously fuel insecurities among regional rivals and spur greater campaigns at isolating the country. Adversaries like Saudi Arabia interpret Tehran’s political alliances in the region as undermining its own efforts at coalition building, and has ramped up sectarian policies and military activities as a result. According to an April report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Saudi Arabia had the fourth highest global military expenditures last year, estimated at over $80 billion. The political thaw between Iran and the United States has also incensed Saudi leaders.

But as the sole non-Arab Shi’ite Muslim majority state in the region, Iran suffers from strategic loneliness. “We have no strategic allies,” Abbas Maleki, deputy director of the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran, told the New Yorker last year. Yet, measured by way of geography, human and natural resources, Iranian officials claim content. They also covet the political stability within the country’s borders, while the immediate region — to the east and west — appears to be plagued by instability. To preserve this, Iran has maintained a defensive military strategy designed to “deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor and force a diplomatic solution,” according to an unclassified Pentagon report from July 2014.

Iran projects these strengths to position itself as a bulwark against imperialism, and increasingly, violent extremism, in the greater Persian Gulf region. These characteristics are evident through the country’s support for resistance movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon, or various militias fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as the U.N.-adopted World Against Violent Extremism initiative, introduced by Rouhani in 2013. Top Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish government officials have regularly recognized Iran’s prompt and substantial contributions in halting the advance of ISIS throughout the region. “We asked for weapons [to fight ISIS],” Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said last year, “and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition.” Some Western leaders have come around to this idea. The EU’s Mogherini sees “a major but positive role” for Iran in places like Syria.

For this latest effort, Iran is interested in working with Western states, but the nuclear issue has morphed into a litmus test for future relations. In the early 1980s, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini welcomed sanctions, instead arguing to broaden domestic capabilities. From the Iranian perspective, its resilience has forced the West to abandon a fruitless dual-track policy of sanctions and coercion.

>Tim Eagan/politicalcartoon.com

>Tim Eagan/politicalcartoon.com

Right to Enrich

At the General Assembly in 2013, Obama officially announced the opening of a bilateral channel of communications between the United States and Iran. “I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government,” he announced. But according to various reports, bilateral discussions between the United States and Iran had begun far earlier, cloaked in secrecy.

Beginning in March 2013, Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who first offered to act as a back-channel in 2009, hosted a series of secret talks between American and Iranian delegations. U.S. allies including its P5+1 partners and Israel were reportedly not notified of the talks. For American negotiators during these meetings, there was a learning curve to dealing with Iran. Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor at the White House, alluded that U.S. diplomats were “learning how to talk to Iran again.”

The secret rounds of diplomacy in Muscat, Oman, helped set the stage for serious negotiations to take place, and the significance of a bilateral channel between Iran and the U.S. cannot be overstated. Obama first wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei in 2009, and again last year, according to various reports. After Rouhani’s election in 2013, Obama wrote his congratulations in a letter addressed to the Iranian president. “I responded to that letter, I thanked him,” Rouhani told NBC News that autumn. “It could be a subtle and small step for a very important future,” he added.

But the diplomatic entreaties accommodated by the aging Omani Sultan were also accompanied by a significant policy overture. In recent months, analysts had been discussing potential mechanisms for sanctions relief or debating the merits of various inspection regimes. In the lead up to November 2013’s Geneva interim agreement, it became apparent that the negotiations had moved beyond a major sticking point from earlier processions — the issue of enrichment.

Throughout the 1970s, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had planned for over 20 nuclear power plants across Iran in cooperation with several Western firms. He envisaged a booming and indigenous nuclear industry, but in the heyday of his departure, revolutionaries suspended the burgeoning program, deeming it a frivolous endeavor. The emerging regime, however, remained signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, which guaranteed the state’s inherent right “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy,” and partake in “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information” in the future. While the text of the treaty makes no explicit mention of the uranium enrichment process, most states have come to interpret enrichment among the rights of signatory states. It also expressed the regime’s moral and religious disavowal to the production or possession of nuclear arms — reiterated countless times since.

The same Western firms once aligned with the Shah’s regime later refused to resume work with Iran. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Islamic Republic reinstated serious work in nuclear technology, when it contracted Russia to complete a German nuclear power plant at Bushehr, and began to pursue its own enrichment-related activities — which it first tested briefly in 2002-3. In 2003, Reza Aghazadeh, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared that, “Having despaired of Western cooperation, we turned to the policy of self-sufficiency” in nuclear enrichment technology.

Hassan Rouhani in 2013. >Asia Society/Flickr

President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. >Asia Society/Flickr

Western leaders, running counter to findings from their own intelligence agencies, responded with more rigorous sanctions and greater pressure to deflate Iran’s legal ambitions, pitting their selective interpretation of the treaty against that of the greater international community. In a March 2013 speech, Khamenei declared, “Iran only wants the world to recognize its right to enrichment, which is Iran’s natural right. Is this too much to expect? This is what we have always demanded, and it is exactly what they do not want us to have.”

Successive U.N. Security Council resolutions demanded Iran suspend its enrichment-related activities and called for more sanctions, but as investigative journalist Gareth Porter wrote in Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (2013), “Iran’s decision to enrich uranium was a direct response to a U.S. policy that had challenged Iran’s right to have any peaceful nuclear power program at all.” Many analysts wrongly interpreted the build-up of enriched uranium as a blatant step toward a weapons program, rather than a negotiating tactic.

As late as 2012, the United States maintained strong resistance to allowing Iran to retain any enrichment capabilities. The Bush administration scuttled a 2005 agreement between Iran and the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) in favor of increased pressure. “From 2003 to 2006, Iran made clear to anyone willing to listen that it would agree to all the key elements of the recent deal,” Gareth Evans, former president of the International Crisis Group (2000-2009), wrote in July on Project Syndicate. “All it needed,” he wrote, “…was formal recognition of its ‘right to enrich’ uranium.”

Three days after Rouhani’s inauguration in August 2013, he called for a new round of negotiations on the nuclear issue. What appears to have emerged from the back-channel talks is that any prospective agreement would rely on increased transparency to assure the P5+1 of the program’s exclusively peaceful nature, and close off various pathways to a bomb. The misguided policy of denying Iran’s rights to technological and scientific nuclear energy in hopes of capitulation no longer seemed tenable.

“The mastery of civil nuclear technology, including the enrichment of uranium, on Iranian soil is the absolute right of Iran,” Zarif said shortly before the first round of negotiations in October 2013. Another Iranian negotiator was quoted: “If this element is not in the text, it is unacceptable to us. Without that, there will be no agreement.”

Suspicions of a shift in P5+1 policy were confirmed that fall, with several political declarations of Iran’s right to the use of civilian nuclear power. “We respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,” Obama said in September 2013. Intensive negotiations in Geneva shortly after resulted in the interim JPOA, which promised Iran a “mutually defined enrichment program” in any comprehensive solution. After the JPOA announcement in November 2013, Rouhani penned an open letter to Khamenei. “The world’s superpowers,” Rouhani declared, “came to the conclusion that there is no way to reach an agreement except with mutual respect and with honorable negotiations.”

The Vienna agreement contains restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capabilities, but does not dismantle it as critics have called for. Adopted on July 20, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 unanimously endorsed the agreement and recognized “Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme, including its enrichment activities,” putting the historic agreement in motion.

It Won’t Kill You

On July 1, Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro exchanged letters declaring their intentions to formally re-establish relations after more than half a century of estrangement. In a speech broadcast from the White House lawns, Obama announced the historic shift toward normalizing relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government. “We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said of America’s outdated policy toward Cuba. “When something isn’t working, we can and will change.”

Since talks between the United States and Iran have been made public, opponents of the emerging deal have been adamant in their demands. Yet just as in Cuba, the policy of coercion, economic and political isolation, and imposition will continue to yield backward results. As the deal nears completion, skeptics are framing Iran’s attainment of its national rights as a concession by the West. “I believe you’ve been fleeced,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, told John Kerry in a hearing on July 23. Some, including junior U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, have called for an end to negotiations and for the U.S. to revert to engaging in a policy of regime change in Iran. But the normalization of relations between Iran and the U.S. is not an issue confined to the nuclear file.

Like in Havana, investors from around the globe are amassing in Tehran with eyes peeled on the future. However, neither the U.S. nor Iran appears to be in a hurry. Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s SNSC, said last year that Iran and the United States “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other.” Yet a long-awaited political thaw, sparked by a successful nuclear agreement, can open doors for cooperation on issues of mutual interest based on mutual respect — whether violent extremism or restoring a home for the Syrian people. As Zarif noted last year, Iranians “respond very positively to respect. Try it. It won’t kill you.”

TIM Summer 2015 Cover thumbThis article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

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