Almaty Negotiations: Result of Iran - US War of Strategic Calculations

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mahdi Mohammadi
Expert on Strategic Issues

The war of strategic calculations between Iran and the West has currently reached a decisive turning point. More than three years ago, Robert Gates, the then Secretary of Defense of the United States during Barack Obama’s first term as president, had told the American policymakers about Iran that they should focus all their energy on Iran's strategic calculations. He then explained that all measures taken by Iranian politicians emanate from the country’s strategic calculations and, therefore, their policies will not change unless underlying calculations change as well.

Influencing the course of Iran's nuclear energy program by weighing down on the country’s strategic calculations has been the most important strategy followed by the United States during the past three years. The US Government has targeted people’s calculations, on the one hand, while taking aim at the strategic calculations of the Islamic Republic’s statesmen, on the other hand, in a bid to force one of the two sides (and if possible both of them) to make a mental review of the cost-benefit equation of Iran's nuclear energy program. In this way, the US government has been hoping that the Iranian people and statesmen will finally reach the conclusion that incurring such a high cost in return for the dividends of insisting on the country’s nuclear right, “is not worthwhile.”

From a strategic viewpoints, the recent negotiations [between Iran and the P5+1 group] in [the Kazakh city of] Almaty [on February 27-28, 2013], were the result of three years of the war of strategic calculations between Iran and the United States. During this period, the US government tried by posing existential threats to Iran, to create some sort of internal pressure on the Iranian government to make it reach a compromise [with the Western powers]. The mechanism used for creating such a threat was to escalate various kinds of pressures on the Iranian people so high as to render the government totally incapable of controlling the situation and making the establishment believe that the cost of insisting on the nuclear energy program greatly outweighs the cost of reaching a deal over it. The US officials have frequently noted that a deal over Iran's nuclear energy program will be only reached when Iran feels that instead of increasing security of the establishment, the nuclear energy program has actually jeopardized its security.

Changing the direction of international sanctions to target people’s livelihood and increasing efforts to make contacts with the domestic environment in Iran which has been pursued through sending direct messages to the Iranian people by the US administration, have been major steps taken in this regard. The main mechanism used to create what the US officials call existential threat [to Iran] was to make the Iranian people feel that their economic problems have reached the point of no return. The United States also wants them to also believe that the problems they are facing now emanate from the sanctions, that sanctions are the result of Iran's nuclear policy, and the nuclear issue has no solution except for Iran sitting at the negotiating table with the United States.

From what the US statesmen have so far said, it follows that they expected the existential threat to Iran to cause widespread social unrest and a deep gap between the Iran’s establishment and the political elite in the fall of 2012. Richard Nathan Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, had once noted that this issue [social unrest in Iran] will happen in the near future and it is then that real talks with Iran would start because to protect the Islamic establishment within the country, Iran would have to mend fences outside its borders.

The move from crippling sanctions to imposing new sanctions which amount to total ban on all forms of trade [by other countries] with Iran, was a new step taken in the fall. It was the time that the US officials came to realize that their forecast had not come true and despite tremendous pressure on Iran, the country is still able to handle even more pressure.

The United States believed that all-out pressures will change Iran's strategic calculations and will force Tehran to make a concession by taking Moscow’s proposal off the table and, instead, coming up with a new deal. The transition from a change in calculation to a change in proposal, or in more technical terms, transition from “producing effect” to “producing result (as a consequence of pressures),” was what the United States expected as a result of its pressures against Iran. Iran was supposed to reach a stage in which it would feel forced to offer proposals to allay what the Western states called “concerns over Iran's nuclear energy program.”

That equation was reversed in Almaty. While everybody expected Iran to first change its strategic calculations and then its proposal, it was the West which finally changed its proposal. If Robert Gates’ formula which states that proposals do not change unless calculations change, is taken to be correct, it follows that the change in the P5+1’s proposal in Almaty has been made possible through a change in the group’s strategic calculations. This means that in a matter of almost a year since the two sides negotiated in the Iraqi capital, Bagdad, Iran has been able to change the United States’ strategic calculations as a result of which the change in the West’s proposal followed.

They expected Iran to change, but in practice, it was the United States which changed. I believe that an important mental shift has occurred in the minds of the US statesmen about the definition of a nuclear Iran. As a result of that change, the definition of the red line which should not be crossed by Iran, and the definition of “Iran's nuclear energy program” in a way that the United States would be able to accept it in a face-saving manner, have also changed. The only reason which caused the Baghdad proposal to change in Almaty was a change in the strategic calculations of the United States during the past year.

What are Washington’s new calculations? Will such a change in calculation and proposal be translated into a parallel change in policies? These are major questions which will not be answered here. However, until the second round of negotiations [between Iran and the P5+1 group are held] in Almaty, these questions will continue to occupy the curious minds of those who want to know whether the United States is serious about the new process or not.

Key Words: Almaty Negotiations, Iran, US, War of Strategic Calculations, P5+1, Sanctions, Robert Gates, Mohammadi

More By Mahdi Mohammadi:

*2013: Continued Deadlock or New Opening?:

*Some Words of Advice to Mr. Obama:

*Why Obama Is Not Willing to Set Red Line for Iran’s Nuclear Program?:

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم