Iran–US Relations in the Light of the Nuclear Negotiations

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kayhan Barzegar

The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs
Volume 49, Issue 3, 2014

Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, officially referred to as the E3+3 or E3/EU+3) agreed to extend the nuclear negotiations for another four month until 24 November 2014 in the hope of reaching a comprehensive agreement. Aside from whether or not the positions of both sides have drawn closer, the important point that must not be ignored is that the negotiations have led to direct talks between Iran and America for solving the nuclear standoff. This development is gradually changing the existing adversarial position towards the United States in Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policy conduct, a prospect that could result in relations between the two countries being restored after 35 years of mutual antagonism and obstruction.

Iran’s polity and foreign policy conduct toward the US are greatly affected by the thoughts of the founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who believed that Iran’s interests could only be preserved if the country kept away from the United States. Although one should accept that the nature of the 1979 Islamic revolution was in many ways in ideological conflict with the American hegemonic worldview and Western liberalism, this belief was not necessarily echoed in absolute anti-US or anti-Western sentiment in Iran’s foreign policy. Rather it was testament to a new philosophy in the conduct of Iranian foreign policy, establishing that Iran would follow its own, independent political, security and economic trends in regional and global equations, which would inevitably be in contradiction with US’ hegemonic aims in the Middle East region. As such, it was necessary for Iran to divorce its politics from those of America. This way of thinking has existed in the different layers of Iran’s power base until today. A traditional and conservative perspective in Iran strongly believes that the main goal of the United States in imposing extensive political pressure and economic sanctions on Iran is to contain the country’s national power and regional and global role by every means possible.

However, with the process of the nuclear negotiations in the course of the last decade and especially during the pragmatic government of President Hassan Rouhani, this complicated equation in Iran–US relations is to some degree changing. The sensitivity and geostrategic nature of the Iranian nuclear programme made engagement between Tehran and Washington an inevitability. Nevertheless, the history and advancement of this programme has been such that the two sides could not retreat from their theoretical and actual expectations. For Iran, the programme has incurred many economic and political costs, mainly imposed by the US as the main driving force behind them. Likewise for America, the surprise discovery of Iran’s nuclear programme was a matter challenging the US’ regional and global status and had to be dealt with immediately.

Avoiding confrontation

Such a situation compelled Tehran and Washington either to engage in war or initiate some kind of interaction for solving the nuclear standoff. Although both scenarios have their own specific complexities, it is evident that the two sides do not intend to engage in war. For Iran, war relates directly to the country’s political, economic and societal security. Iranian society, the older generations who experienced and saw the damaging results of the 1980-88 Iran–Iraq war and the younger generations who are witnessing the instability and ugly pictures of several other existing wars in the region (i.e. in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine), would like to avoid any hostile activity by all means possible. They cast their votes to change their government from a hard-line conservative (Mahmood Ahmadinejad) to a pragmatic-moderate one (Hassan Rouhani) in order to avoid any confrontation with the West and America.

On the other hand, the US’ experience of involvement in regional wars has not been successful, bringing about fresh instability and tension in regional affairs and creating intense dissatisfaction in the American public and power structure. As such, the administration of President Barack Obama is realistically withdrawing US troops from the region, showing little interest in engaging in another regional war (that is, in Syria or, more recently, in Iraq as a consequence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria–ISIS taking power in the country). But interaction between Iran and the US also has its own specific complexities, especially on Iran’s side, where the real challenge is how to balance between preserving its interests while following an independent path on its nuclear programme on the one hand, and giving in to US hegemonic expectations of imposing its own, favoured, political-security solution to the Iranian nuclear issue on the other.

Beyond the existing challenges, the Iranian nuclear standoff for the first time has linked an important foreign policy issue, that is the possibility of direct talks with the US, with Iran’s domestic politics. A sort of political consensus has come into being among Iran’s diverse factions, be they conservative or reformist, regarding the need for bilateral talks with the US in order to pursue national security objectives. This clearly showed itself in the 2013 presidential elections. Indeed, Rouhani, the pragmatic-moderate candidate, was able to win Iranians’ votes by assuring them that he would continue Iran’s nuclear programme in a win-win situation, tackling the threat launched by the United States, the main force striving to halt the Iranian nuclear programme by either war or coercive economic sanctions, in a way that Iran’s interests and regional and global status would be preserved. In this context, the process of nuclear negotiations triggered a debate on the necessity of direct engagement with the United States in Iran’s domestic politics, and subsequently in its foreign policy.

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*Kayhan Barzegar is the chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University and the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. He is also a former Associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Source: The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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