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Iranian-American Rapprochement: Iran's Shift Is Tactical, Not Strategic

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While listening to Secretary of the State John Kerry's speech at AIPAC's annual policy conference in Washington DC this year, several issues and comments reflected the White House's underlying and fundamental policy position regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Usually, President Obama would deliver the speech at this conference, as he did in previous years, however the administration decided to send Kerry instead of the president or Vice President Joe Biden. This decision reflects the recent clashes between the administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly on the prospects of Iranian-American rapprochement and reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal that would force the international community and United Nations Security Council members to revert all sanctions imposed over the last decade.

The bulk of Kerry and Netanyahu's speeches concentrated on the Islamic Republic, pushing for a comprehensive and final nuclear deal, recent negotiations between the P5+1 (a group of six powers constituting the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and prospects of Tehran's nuclear program.

Kerry's comments reflect a policy position from the White House, that an endgame to the Iranian nuclear crisis might involve an Iran that retains its nuclear infrastructure and continues enriching uranium.

Is Diplomacy the Sole Avenue?

Kerry voiced support for diplomacy in Iranian nuclear negotiations and appealed for patience and trust in Iran. He emphasized that a diplomatic path is the only available avenue to reach a permanent nuclear deal and to remove the nuclear threat posed by the Islamic Republic. He pointed out that the diplomatic initiatives have been working and have yielded positive results until now, with no need to alter the ongoing negotiation and diplomatic process.

The White House has even clashed with Congress due to the bipartisan sanction bill advocated by both Republicans and Democrats. The Obama administration has repeatedly pointed out that the sanctions bill against Iran would undermine the nuclear talks with Iranian leaders, and President Obama has threatened to veto it.

There is not doubt that reaching a permanent and comprehensive nuclear deal aimed to remove all security concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions is totally legitimate and desirable for all parties involved including the regional powers. Yet there is still a real security risk: if the comprehensive nuclear deal leaves Iranian leaders with some sort of path to become a nuclear armed state and if it simultaneously relieves Iran from all economic and political sanctions, then the regional security risk of reaching a final deal is much higher than the status quo.

Reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal will require the United Nations Security Council members to revert all the accumulated economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. If the final deal is flimsy and weak and if it permits Iranian leaders to continue enriching uranium, keeping the plutonium reactors of Arak and Fordow, retaining the nuclear infrastructure, spinning centrifuges and adding to the numbers of centrifuges, the final comprehensive nuclear deal will pose more threats and make more concerns for the region.

The Underlying US Fallacy: Iranian-American Rapprochement

Kerry's recent speech and US foreign policy moves towards Tehran indicate that Washington views the current status of American-Iranian rapprochement as similar to the American-Chinese rapprochement in the early 1970s with President Nixon's trip to Beijing.

The United States believes that the Islamic Republic under Rowhani's administration, like Zedong's China, is making a strategic shift in their policies with Iranian leaders searching for a fundamental policy change and a fresh era of geopolitical and strategic relationships with Washington, the West, and other regional powers.

However, the fallacy in this inaccurate analogy arises from the notion that Iranian leaders' recent foreign policies, particularly with regards to its nuclear program, are not strategic changes as depicted by the White House. The policies enacted by Rowhani's government are tactical.

Rowhani's government, in addition to all the technocrats that he brought to his administration, can be characterized as the most competent Iranian administration since 1979. Rowhani's team is made up of individuals that made incredible mistakes in the late 1980s and 1990s. They have learned from their mistakes though, and are applying new tactical policies to survive, remove sanctions, and regain their economic and geopolitical power. Tactical policies are reversible at anytime.

In one of his speeches, Khamenei gave an example of such tactical moves in recent nuclear talks by referring to wrestling (a popular sport in Iran), where sometimes, when the wrestler faces a strong rival, he must show some "heroic flexibility" in order to win the match or survive.

President Rowhani clearly wrote in his memoir that the negotiations he led during the Khatami era, and the agreement to suspend Iran's nuclear enrichment for two years, not only did not halt the advancement of the nuclear program, but actually moved the program forward, expanding the centrifuges and nuclear infrastructure in those years. This is a prominent example of tactical policies. He added that through his policies he was capable of buying time and progressing the nuclear program to 20 percent enriched uranium with higher number of centrifuges.

The crucial issue is that the tactical policies implemented by Rowhani's government are temporary, and when the political and economic objectives of Tehran are achieved, all the agreements on the nuclear issues can be reversed, as Iranian authorities including Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi have repeatedly pointed towards.

This post first appeared on Al Arabiya.

Majid Rafizadeh, an American scholar and political scientist, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He is originally from Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria.