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Nuclear diplomacy and Iran - Where’s the deal?

The Economist

Even if direct negotiations between the United States and Iran ensue, few predict a happy outcome

WASHINGTON, DC - ON THE face of it, all that is needed at this stage of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy with the United States and other world powers is for the Iranians and the so-called P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany) to agree on a time and a place for their next meeting. Instead, each side has been blaming the other for refusing to make any commitment. A European official has spoken of Iranian “delaying tactics”, while the press in Tehran denounces the “unpreparedness” of Iran’s Western interlocutors.

“If the two sides can’t agree on details of this kind,” rues a seasoned Iran-watcher in Washington, “it doesn’t bode well for the negotiations themselves.” Indeed, for all the conciliatory instincts of America’s re-elected president and his nomination of relative doves to run important parts of foreign policy, even advocates of detente are sceptical about the prospect of improved relations in Barack Obama’s second term.

It is all a far cry from 2009, when immediately after taking office Mr Obama offered an “extended hand” to adversaries prepared to “unclench their fist”. Since then, the Iranians have inched closer to being able to make a bomb, while stopping short, so far as Western spy agencies can tell, of actually trying to do so. America and its allies have applied sanctions of great breadth and severity, bolstered on occasion by assassinations and cyber-assaults, all the while hoping for an Iranian climbdown that has yet to happen. Indeed, the Iranians nowadays are digging in their toes in the face of such coercion by refusing to meet American officials bilaterally.

Across a wide political spectrum in Washington “compromise” remains a dirty word when it comes to Iran. Yet, as a bevy of commentators and think-tank specialists have urged in recent weeks, offering bigger incentives may be the only way to persuade Iran to lower the diplomatic drawbridge, even a little.

America’s priority, says Ray Takeyh, of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in New York and Washington, is to stop Iran from continuing to produce higher-enriched uranium. The ayatollahs might, he thinks, desist in return for a loosening of the Western-imposed sanctions; American officials have tacitly accepted that the Iranians will never give up enriching to lower levels. Even Patrick Clawson of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has close ties with Israel, has called on Mr Obama to offer “juicier carrots” than the lifting of an embargo on airliners’ spare parts that the Iranians contemptuously rejected during earlier talks.

Is the president listening? Even if Chuck Hagel is confirmed as secretary of defence, in the face of fierce opposition from the pro-Israel lobby, alongside John Kerry at the State Department, the administration will probably persist with its hard line, if only because that may be the best way of ensuring that the Israelis do not take matters into their own hands by attacking Iran.

Besides, loosening sanctions against Iran is not entirely in Mr Obama’s gift, since many of the more punitive elements were passed by Congress, whose Republican majority favours still heavier measures. Some senior members of Iran’s government suspect that America has no intention of lifting sanctions so long as the Islamic Republic survives. They point out that sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were not lifted until after the American invasion in 2003

After years of zero relations and a torrent of propaganda from both capitals, mistrust is endemic. The Americans puzzle over whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants a deal at all. Some speculate that coming to terms with “the Great Satan” would, like glasnost in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, destroy revolutionary Iran by removing much of its raison d’être.

The question is put a bit differently in Tehran. Almost since the revolution of 1979 that toppled the Shah and led to the severing of relations with America, the prize of normalisation has attracted the more adventurous kind of Iranian politician, all the more so now, as sanctions exact a toll of much-reduced receipts from oil, along with high inflation and unemployment. In the past few months several heavyweights in Tehran have spoken in favourable, if vague, terms of detente. Manouchehr Mottaki, a former foreign minister, said that improving relations with America is a “national project”.

Ownership of that project, if it is real, lies with Mr Khamenei. Although his representative is rumoured to have had secret meetings with American officials, his public denunciations of the United States suggest that he is far from convinced that the benefits of dealing with the enemy outweigh the potential pitfalls posed by declining revolutionary prestige and a possible injection of hedonistic Western values into Iranian society.

Four years ago, Mr Khamenei faced down mass, regime-defying protests in the wake of a disputed presidential election, blaming the unrest on foreign hands. Now, five months shy of another, potentially hazardous poll, the last thing he wants is for detente with America to become an election issue over which he has no control (see article).

That became clear in December, when an editorial in Keyhan, a newspaper known for echoing the supreme leader’s views, denounced powerful figures for “pressing” him to “abandon his revolutionary positions and negotiate with America.” Quoting Mr Khamenei, the paper found that, contrary to the opinion of these “tired revolutionaries”, the old “spirit of resistance” is still alive among ordinary people.

This assessment is questionable as the Islamic Republic totters through its fourth decade. Its currency is half as valuable as it was a year ago, its foreign-exchange reserves are depleted and its economy is expected to be flat in 2013. In 2010, before sanctions took full effect, GDP grew by 6% or so. Private businesses have suffered especially under sanctions. Meanwhile economic clout is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, linked to the Revolutionary Guard, which enjoys access to cheap foreign exchange and a virtual monopoly over imports.

Iran’s leaders seem to be taking care not to cross Mr Obama’s “red line” by building an actual nuclear weapon, an act that would probably trigger American military action. So what will happen, presuming that negotiations do eventually start and that there is still no deal? The likely answer is more sanctions and more suffering for ordinary Iranians, much as Iraq underwent in the 1990s. That is hardly a happy precedent.