On Iran, Turn Rhetoric Into Results

09/30/2011 12:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2011

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, has sent another letter to the Permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) lead negotiator, Catherine Ashton, requesting fresh talks to bridge the longstanding divide. When news of the letter broke, reactions ranged from surprise to doubt. Some noted Jalili's moderate and forthcoming tone was different from previous communiqués, and thus warranted consultations to determine Iran's degree of seriousness. Others dismissed the letter as yet another attempt by an inflexible regime to create and exploit fissures in the international community. What commentators from both viewpoints agree upon -- knowingly or unknowingly -- is striking: Iran has put out numerous, subtle but clear diplomatic feelers. While testing Iran's seriousness is a logical desire, rendering judgment before sitting across from the Iranians at the negotiating table is less understandable. Perhaps more importantly, it raises key questions about America's own readiness.

Since Iran torpedoed talks in Istanbul, it has twice offered to resume negotiations with the P5+1. Most recently, western diplomats said that Iran's "charm offensive" would be reviewed to assess its credibility versus its potential as a ploy to influence forthcoming IAEA reporting. If that's a possibility now, it wasn't months ago when Iran's initial offer to revive talks was dismissed as "not serious." Iran was said to be stalling, buying time, and trying to derail sanctions. Again, that may be true, but how can foreign governments determine Tehran's strategic intent thousands of miles away from the negotiating table, where motivations are typically assessed? If Iran was offering talks in an effort to avoid new punitive measures, wasn't that the point? To "bring Iran back to the table" and sharpen its choices so that it "negotiates in good faith"?

A prescient observer recently told me that Iran may be offering talks now because it knows that American domestic political realities severely limits the Obama administration's ability to negotiate. There is merit to this argument. A hostile congress -- together with key allies that oppose diplomacy -- drives up the political costs for Obama. As political space for diplomacy shrinks, so does his administration's political will. But don't take my word for it -- the aforementioned observer is a senior-level U.S. official that works the Iran file, and my former colleague at the State Department.

The paradox personified by this observation is telling. Iran's domestic politics are often described as fractious, thereby rendering Iranian decision-makers unable to take "yes" for an answer. Again, that may be the case -- as it was in 2009, when Iran couldn't follow through on its initial acceptance of the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) confidence-building measure. But there is a degree of mirror imaging going on that is not negligible. When the U.S. says that Iran's system is paralyzed and can't respond, we should also look at ourselves. Turkey and Brazil sought to revive the TRR deal -- with Obama's blessing -- and got Tehran to sign on the dotted line, but it was the Obama administration that couldn't take "yes" for an answer.

Patience and perseverance are needed in any negotiation. This is not unique to the U.S. or Iran. Indeed, Iran won't play fair -- it can be expected to leverage loopholes and missteps throughout the negotiation process. Is that unyielding ideology and a lack of seriousness? Or is that driving a hard bargain?

If Iran is making offers to negotiate with the P5+1 -- America's preferred mechanism -- why not test its seriousness? Domestic political constraints in Tehran and Washington are always going to be an obstacle. There will never be a good time to start negotiations, so if either side waits for the "right" time, it will never come. There is a history of Iran being politically toxic in America. It has, after all, brought down one presidency and nearly did the same to another. Nevertheless, that is what leadership is all about. President Obama spoke of the need for diplomacy with Iran during his 2008 campaign, proceeded after he entered office, and took flak for it the entire time. Moving forward, perhaps Obama needs to take a page from his own playbook.

Dismissing even the faintest effort to revive talks is now the norm -- as it has been for much of the past 32 years. Changing this unproductive relationship is harder to do, and we don't have much experience. Consider this: After negotiations collapsed in 2009, and the U.S. increased its push for UN sanctions, how many times did we speak to the Russians and Chinese? How many times did we speak to the British, French, Germans and other Security Council members? How many times did Secretary Clinton and President Obama interact directly with their foreign counterparts? Compare all of that to the number of times American officials spoke to their Iranian counterparts, who were the subject of the entire process: zero. This suggests a certain imbalance in the focus of our diplomacy.

Winston Churchill once said that the thing he liked most about America was that "they always did the right thing in the end ... they just liked to exhaust all the alternatives first." The latter describes much of our historical experience in Iran. Certainly, the Iranians suffer from the same flaws -- and more. While a true agreement only can come about when both sides shed their old habits, as a super-power, the U.S. cannot give Tehran veto power over America's Iran policy. For President Obama to peacefully defuse the Iran crisis, he must actively seek to do the right thing in the end -- turn his compelling vision into practical policy, and rhetoric into results.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American
Council and a former Iran desk officer at the U.S. State Department.