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Stumbling Toward the Finish Line: US, Iran, and the 'Peace Process'

05/21/2014 11:53 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2014

Last week if you read my Twitter feed you'd think the nuclear negotiations with Iran were sinking fast. Little if any progress was made at the meeting in Vienna's resplendent Coburg Palace, where Iranians met their negotiating partners from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Much hand wringing on the sidelines ensued.

The history of arms control negotiations, and indeed peace negotiations more broadly, is that progress usually comes at the last minute. We're not close to that midnight hour in these talks -- July is the official goal, but the talks can be extended by mutual consent. No real cause for panic on that score.

But there is that niggling doubt that the parties are too fixed in their prejudices to make that final leap. In this, it's worth comparing the nuclear talks with a simultaneous failure -- the Israel-Palestine negotiation that recently collapsed (again). Or the Syria negotiations debacle at Geneva earlier this year. What makes some difficult conflicts amenable to a peace agreement, and others not?

I led a large study with the late Marianne Heiberg a few years back, funded by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, to probe this very question. In the book that resulted, Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflict (Penn Press), we found, among other things, that the legitimacy of the negotiators with their own constituents is crucial, and that those negotiators will not always be the "moderates." Hardliners sometimes should be included, lest they become spoilers.

What we have seen in so many peace processes is that without this legitimacy, and what I call a "public demand for peace," the negotiations are likely to fail. That is, the public must be mobilized to demand of their leaders that peace be pursued. It not only motivates leaders, even in authoritarian societies, but gives them the political space to make the compromises needed to reach a suitable agreement.

It's a another way of looking at "legitimacy" -- that public engagement to end conflict must be bundled into political leadership. The groups and constituencies in society that express such demands -- women, religious organizations, intellectuals, labor unions, business leaders, etc. -- mainly have influence in precisely this way. I was among the first to chart civil society's impact on the end of the Cold War, and the evidence since then supports this idea -- the crucial role of social and political movements in spurring the demand for peace and the will to make an agreement work.

What we are potentially misunderstanding in the Iran negotiation is the role of this public demand. In Iran, there is a very animated discourse on the talks in which those favoring a deal -- President Rouhani, and, for the time being, Supreme Leader Khamanei -- are justifying their tactics against the criticism from conservatives who are skeptical or opposed outright.

In the United States, the public has long been hostile to the Islamic Republic, as have opinion elites and nearly all politicians. This has made the task of mobilizing the public for a peace deal all the more challenging. Very few civil society organizations work in favor of a nuclear deal full time. On the other end of the spectrum, several well-funded groups decry the negotiations as a sell-out of Israeli security.

Still, opinion polls reflect some cautious support for deal-making. After the interim deal now in effect was finished last November, American support for it was quite strong: some polls backed the deal by a 2-to-1 margin. Yet the American people still distrust Iran or consider it an enemy by even higher margins. In a Gallup Poll in March, 82 percent of the public said Iran was either "unfriendly" (41 percent) or an "enemy" (41 percent), an improvement from a year ago but actually worse than a poll taken in May 2000.

What this indicates is that like many conflicts, the U.S.-Iran relationship has become a "hurting stalemate," in which, for very different reasons, both publics are ready to compromise enough to reach an agreement. But how much compromise will depend on how much sway spoilers in both countries have: the Israel Lobby in particular is likely to try to narrow the space available to negotiators by scaring the public about the threat to Israel from Iran, which is in fact minimal to nearly nonexistent. So far, such tactics haven't worked, but in a final, comprehensive agreement, the stakes are higher and more muscle will be exerted.

The comparisons to the Israeli-Palestinian talks and the Geneva talks on Syria are imperfect, because arms control agreements are based on the fairly rational task of constraining technology. But some observations are useful all the same, notably, the absence of the public demand and the absence of a hurting stalemate. There are those in Israel who are ready for a two-state deal, but they're drowned out by the settlers and the politics of victimhood. Palestinian leaders are seeking non-violent ways of hurting Israel enough to prompt them to negotiate seriously -- hence the possibility of taking Israel to the International Criminal Court. But there's little evidence that a public demand based on a hurting stalemate is strong enough to change Israel's stubborn stance.

As for Syria, it's apparent that the Assad regime never intended to negotiate -- in that sense, ironically, he plays the part of Bibi Netanyahu in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. But the rebels, especially the extremists, have diminishing legitimacy, even among those who despise Assad. Both sides lack the motives or the popular base to engineer a satisfactory peace, and outside forces -- Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the U.S. -- are wedded to a military strategy that so far has proved merely tragic.

For many years, the United States and Iran could not negotiate effectively. The election of Rouhani a year ago clearly changed the climate, and, to their credit, the U.S. and its partners have responded. The "hurt" in the stalemate is much more Iran's than America's, but both sides have strong incentives now to overcome their troubled history and come to an agreement.

To get to the finish line, however, the United States in particular must overcome the spoilers, and to do that President Obama needs to mobilize the fragile demand for peace in the American public. The talking heads and Twitterati give us the inside baseball of the talks, but what a public demand should look like is a normative and even emotional claim. Given the split in civil society, it is Obama above all others who must articulate and arouse this claim.

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist of the MIT Center for International Studies. He is coauthor and editor of U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue (Bloomsbury)