By Rami G. Khouri (source: Daily Star (Lebanon)
Recently, I returned from a 10-day trip to Iran that was primarily a touristic visit for me and my wife. However, I did talk to friends and others whose political views reflected both sides of the government-opposition divide. I sought firsthand appreciation of Iran that went beyond the American- and Israeli-influenced Western media’s heavy focus on Iran as an irresponsible international menace. I suspected that beneath the story of a nuclear standoff with the West was a deeper tale of a nation, a culture, history, identity and human values that could only be appreciated on the spot.
So, this week in Beirut, when I read reports that US President Barack Obama had briefed journalists on Wednesday about US-Iranian issues, especially the possibility of resuming nuclear negotiations, I juxtaposed that against the realities and sentiments I encountered in Iran a few weeks ago. The balance sheet was mixed.
My main conclusion is that the Iranian-American tensions and their ramifications will not be resolved mainly through technical negotiations that reflect cost-benefit analyses by both sides. Rather, they will be resolved when both sides achieve their bottom line national interests, but also sufficiently understand their common intangible fears and occasional irrational manias, which relate to power on the US side and dignity and respect on the Iranian side.
A new opportunity to move toward an agreement may be at hand, reflecting important recent developments: the Turkish-Brazilian-brokered agreement for Iran to send low-enriched uranium abroad in return for more highly enriched fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor; and, the anticipated resumption in September of the negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 group of the Security Council permanent members plus Germany.
Obama’s briefing to journalists was an important indicator that it is still possible to negotiate an agreement by which Iran continues to enrich uranium to some extent but with safeguards that ensure it is not producing nuclear weapons – more or less the same position that Iran advocates. The agreement with Brazil and Turkey in May was a step toward such an agreement, because it included provisions responding to Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes while also affirming existing international safeguards included in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Two important intangibles need to be addressed for any talks to succeed, as Obama’s briefing reminded us. The first is the arrogance of the United States, which insists on being both a negotiator in the dispute, the lead party that threatens and sanctions Iran, and the detached judge and reference point that determines if Iran has met the international demands made of it. As long as the US maintains these untenable simultaneous roles, the chances of a negotiated agreement remain virtually zero.
This is where it becomes politically instructive to stroll through Isfahan’s main square, the Shiraz bazaar, the neighborhood of the main religious complex at Qom, the antiquities at Persepolis, or any residential or commercial neighborhood in Tehran, and grasp the meaning of 75 million people who refuse to be duped either by their own government or by Western powers.
The Iranian sense of history is not about past grandeur only; it is also heavily defined by a sense of being betrayed and exploited by many Western powers in the modern era, especially on nuclear issues. Iran – like Turkey and Israel, but unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia – insists on safeguarding its national interests and will not play by the deceitful double-standard rules set in London, Paris, Moscow, Washington and, more recently, Tel Aviv. This is mainly a demand for dignity and respect, intangibles that are largely missing from the American-Israeli diplomatic lexicon, which is more anchored in power.
I suspect that this can be achieved, though, if the second requirement for a successful negotiation is addressed seriously: a restoration of Western and Security Council confidence in Iran’s declarations about its nuclear industry. If Iran is not hiding a secret nuclear weapons program, it should not hesitate to provide all the answers to the questions posed to it by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet Tehran’s position is that it will not provide such answers in an atmosphere of threats, sanctions and wild assumptions of its nuclear guilt and deviousness by the US-Israel-led camp.
Obama’s signals this week reportedly aim to test if Iran is able to make decisions on the basis of rational cost-benefit analyses on resolving the nuclear dispute. Iran for its part should send signals of equal magnitude in return – to test whether the US and its allies want to resolve this dispute according to IAEA and NPT rules that are applied consistently to all countries, or only discriminately to some. Where respect, dignity, the rule of law, and technical compliance meet, a solution satisfactory to all will be found.
Rami G Khouri is the Director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut as well as editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. He is an internationally syndicated political columnist and author.