US-Iran Diplomacy Remains One-Sided

Obama described those talks as an opportunity for the Iranian regime to “get right with the world,” and Fox News adds that the president was specifically leaving open the possibility of re-opening an American embassy in Iran at some point in the future. Although this possibility seems to be recognized as rather remote or distant, the Obama administration evidently remains committed to the prospect that Iran and other Middle Eastern nations will act in concert with the interests of the United States – an assumption that is reflected in the president’s comments to NPR concerning the need for countries in the region to take the initiative in actions that the US may then support.

This assumption is clearly shared outside of the administration as well. Robert Kaplan shows a similar perspective in an article in The Atlantic concerning the potential for US-Iran rapprochement in the near future. Kaplan says that a warming of relations between the two countries is possible without the US fully alienating Israel and existing Sunni powers in the region that are also adversaries to Iran.

Kaplan advocates for continued engagement with Iran, insisting that Iran and the US have various shared interests that will motivate rapprochement from both sides. For instance, he claims that Iran will recognize economic cooperation as a way of avoiding some economically-motivated popular unrest. At the same time, he suggests that Iran may help to diminish the threat of Sunni extremists while contributing to compromise solutions to various crises in the region, as by allowing the ouster of the Assad regime in Syria but retaining power for the Alawite sect.

Opponents of the Iranian regime may however be inclined to regard Kaplan’s assessment as overly optimistic in its assumptions that Iran will act rationally and will not merely replace one threat to US security with another. Case in point, a press release by the Center for Democratic Iran looks ahead to the year 2015 in the country and worries that it will only contribute to a worsening security situation in the region.

In drawing its comparatively pessimistic conclusion, the press release emphasizes the structure of Iranian government, being headed by a top cleric who is the ultimate authority over all policy decisions. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ideological edicts overrule all other decisions, the article says, “regardless of whether they are right or wrong.”

Indeed, Khamenei’s ultimate authority goes a long way toward explaining the lack of a final agreement in nuclear negotiations, despite the extension of its deadline from last summer to November 24, and now to the end of June of the coming year. Voice of America News reports that those talks are aimed at pushing Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon back to at least a year, compared to the estimated two months that that breakout time is currently stalled at.

Any reduction in Iran’s capacity for enriching nuclear material or conducting research and development would be unacceptable to the supreme leader, as evidenced by his stated red lines for Iranian negotiators. In light of these obstacles, Voice of America quotes Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies as saying, “It’s hard to see what would change to make a deal any more likely next year when they couldn’t reach a deal in the past 12 months of negotiations.”

And of course Ayatollah Khamenei is far from being the only obstacle to these talks or to the broader diplomatic cooperation that they are apparently aimed at achieving. Rigid opposition to such cooperation with the West is a defining feature of much of the Iranian power structure, as is Shiite extremism. The Tower reports that on Saturday, General Qolamhossein Qeib-parvar of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps said, “There are only two things that would end enmity between us and the US. Either the US president and EU leaders should convert to Islam and imitate the Supreme Leader, or Iran should abandon Islam and the Islamic revolution.”

Such comments, coming from high-ranking officials with considerable influence over Iranian government and society, suggest that whereas the Obama administration and some Western commentators are thinking about US-Iran cooperation in purely strategic terms, Iran is largely thinking about that same topic in ideological terms and coming to wildly different conclusions.