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Can Washington Reciprocate Iran's 'Constructive Engagement'?


Rohani

As New York prepares for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly next week, the volume of Western media speculation about the prospects for a U.S.-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough is mounting to impressive levels.  Predictably, much of this speculation amounts to little more than wondering how many concessions the Islamic Republic’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is willing and will be able to make, especially on the nuclear issue.

As usual, we prefer looking at facts and authoritative statements of official positions over the speculation of journalists and pundits.  In this spirit, we want to highlight a few passages from President Rohani’s much noted Op-Ed in the Washington Post earlier this week, see here.

Three passages seem especially relevant for understanding Tehran’s position on the nuclear issue.  The first presents Rohani’s definition of “constructive engagement”:
“It is—or should be—counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others.  A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights.  It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives.  In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable.  A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.”
The explicit reference to not relinquishing one’s rights is, of course, very much of a piece with Rohani’s statements, during his presidential campaign and since his election, that he is not about to surrender Iran’s right—as a sovereign state and as a non-weapons state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to enrich uranium under international safeguards.  Unfortunately, there is no concrete indication that the Obama administration is prepared to acknowledge this right.  In fact, one can find multiple statements from administration officials over the last five years publicly denying that there is such a right.  (This is, among other things, a legally and intellectually dishonest reading of the NPT.)

The second passage from President Rohani’s Op-Ed that we want to highlight here explains with admirable clarity why the Islamic Republic is not about to compromise its right to safeguarded enrichment:
“We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East.  At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world.  The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program.  To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.”
President Rohani goes on to note, “Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”  Indeed. Unfortunately, it remains far from clear that the Obama administration understands how tightly the matter of Iran’s nuclear rights is linked to fundamental questions of identity (like independence and control of the country’s energy resources) for Iranians who supported Imam Khomeini’s revolution and continue to support the political order it produced.

The third passage from President Rohani’s Op-Ed that we want to highlight discusses the requirements for diplomatic progress:
“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher.  Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think—and talk—about how to make things better.  To do that, we all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want—clearly, concisely and sincerely—and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action.  This is the essence of my approach to constructive interaction.”
President Rohani certainly is not the first Iranian leader to want the United States to clarify its ultimate intentions vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.  Unfortunately, it remains far from clear that the Obama administration is or will be prepared to lay out a clear and positive end game for nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic—for this would require the United States to acknowledge Iran’s aforementioned right to safeguarded enrichment as an essential pillar of any negotiated solution to the nuclear issue.

So, going into UNGA next week and looking beyond UNGA to renewed nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, the relevant question is not how much is Iran’s leadership prepared to concede on the nuclear issue.  Rather, the relevant question is whether Washington is prepared to abandon a strategic approach to the Middle East that has done profound damage to America’s own position in this vital region—in no small part, by rendering productive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic impossible.

This was very much the theme of an interview that our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran, gave earlier this week to Russia Today, see here.  We append the interview, titled “Iran’s position strengthening while US in decline,” below, along with Russia Today’s editorial precede:

“Iran’s vow to never develop nuclear arms appeared to be an olive branch extended America’s way.  But it is Washington, and not Tehran who needs all the friends it can get these days, Professor Seyed Mohhamad Marandi from the University of Tehran told RT.

On Wednesday, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani said of the Islamic Republic, ‘under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.’

Underscoring Rouhani’s concerted efforts to kick start negotiations over its controversial uranium enrichment program with the West, US President Barack Obama and Rouhani exchanged letters.  This followed recent elections in Iran and the two leaders may meet on the margins of the UN general assembly next week.  Rouhani, who took office in August, also ordered the release of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer, and a number of other political prisoners on the eve of a visit to the United Nations.

The White House has thus far reacted positively towards these overtures, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying ‘there is an opportunity for diplomacy when it comes to the issues that have presented challenges to the United States and our allies with regards to Iran.’
Professor Marandi says that while the onus has been put on Tehran to return to the Western fold, it is Washington who needs Iran to help fix the mess it’s made in the region.

Read the rest here.


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