Huffpost WorldPost
Trita Parsi Headshot

Why Washington Should Welcome Iran's Broadening of the Agenda

Posted: Updated:

Amid continued political confusion in Iran following election fraud and widespread human rights abuses, the Iranian government responded to the P5 plus 1 nuclear negotiations package by offering (made available by ProPublica) its own rather imprecise and abstract proposal to resolve -- not the nuclear issue, per se -- but global problems in general.

Unlike the Bush administration, which had a tendency of rejecting negotiation proposals out of hand, the Obama administration has taken some time to review the Iranian proposal and consult its allies.

And while the Iranian response cannot be characterized as a resounding yes, neither is it a categorical rejection of negotiations. Between the theology lessons, endless references to justice, and efforts to broaden the negotiations to encompass virtually every global problem known to man, an opening can be found not only to address the nuclear problem, but also the dire human rights situation and the conspicuous absence of justice in Iran.

The Iranian proposal is best understood not from the prism of the West's focus on the nuclear program, but from the vantage point of Iran's long standing objective to be recognized as a regional power with a permanent seat at the table of regional decision making. Iran believes it suffers from severe role deficit -- though it is one of the most powerful countries in the region, its neighbors view it by and large as a disruptive, anti-status quo power and have consequently refrained from giving it access to recognized and institutionalized avenues of influence.

After all, the reigning order in the Middle East is one defined and upheld by the United States, which for the past thirty years has sought Iran's isolation and exclusion, not its inclusion and rehabilitation. Breaking out of this isolation and forcing Washington and the regional capitols to grant Iran the role it craves have been overarching strategic goals of Iranian foreign policy for several decades now.

Iran believes that the nuclear stand-off provides it with an opportunity to achieve this objective. By broadening the agenda for negotiations, Iran takes the opportunity to discuss with the great powers matters where the views of the Iranian government hardly have been taken into account in the past. The broader aim is to institutionalize the great power's recognition of Iran's role and seat at the table.

Perhaps more importantly, the Iranians refuse to permit the P5 plus 1 to single-handedly set the parameters of the talks. By presenting its own proposal, Iran is introducing its own parameters. The Iranians are in essence negotiating about the shape of the table before negotiating matters of substance. This is hardly surprising. During the EU-Iranian negotiations on the nuclear issue, Tehran was immensely frustrated by Europe's dismissal of several Iranian proposals and its insistence on solely discussing its own set of ideas and demands. By now, Iran seems determined not to let that happen again.

In that vein, Iran's uncompromising stance and its cursory references to nuclear matters are most likely an opening bid, and not a red line. Similarly, the Obama administration's call for the halt of Iran's enrichment program as the objective of the talks is no different. Few inside and outside the White House see a complete reversal of Iran's enrichment program as feasible. That doesn't mean, however, that this demand won't be an effective opening salvo in any negotiation with Tehran.

Rather than viewing the Iranian response as an indication that diplomacy holds no promise for success due to its evasiveness, Washington should seek to utilize Iran's move to its own advantage.

The Iranian proposal doesn't directly touch the enrichment question, but it does address non-proliferation. The proposal to mobilize "global resolve and putting into action real and fundamental programmes toward complete disarmament and preventing development and proliferation of nuclear, chemical and microbial weapons" may offer an opening to push strongly for transparency and acceptance of intrusive inspections and verification mechanisms. According to many nuclear experts, for the purpose of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, these instruments are more effective than a suspension of enrichment.

The generalized tone of the offer to address proliferation issues is consistent with Iran's refusal to accept any unique solution to address its nuclear program -- any solution acceptable to the Iranians must be generalized to also apply to Brazil and other countries with existing or potential enrichment programs. Iran refuses to be a special case -- whatever should apply to it should apply to all states in the NPT, they insist.

Western diplomats have expressed great frustration over Iran's attempt to expand the agenda. But even here a silver lining can be found since a broader agenda is a two-edged sword for Iran.

Indeed, if the Ahmadinejad government wants broaden the agenda to talk about Security Council reform and the "roots of the global economic and financial crisis," the US and the EU3 should welcome that and broaden the agenda further to include the question of human rights and free elections in Iran.

This suggestion should not be made with the intention of ridiculing the Iranian demands, but rather to point out that if Iran wants a seat at the table and be treated as a major power, it cannot ignore the responsibilities that come with that position.

Iran is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as several other human rights conventions. Yet, in its prisons, the Iranian government tortures and kills its own citizens for having questioned Iran's June presidential elections.

Iran wants to discuss global justice. Yet, on the streets of Tehran, the Iranian government encourages knife wielding militias to terrorize the Iranian people.

Iran's proposal to the P5 plus 1 requests that people's right to free elections to be respected, yet its own record shows anything but respect for free elections.

Washington should not reject a conversation with Iran about Tehran's blatant hypocrisy, it should welcome it. After all, if the Obama administration's objective is to rehabilitate Iran into the global order as a responsible and constructive actor, then Iran's abysmal human rights record is no less pressing or important than its enrichment program.

There is a favorable basis for this conversation with Tehran precisely since Washington wouldn't need to uphold Iran to a Western standard or one set by "imperialist powers." Rather, it would only need to uphold Iran to the very same standard Iran itself professes to respect.

So if Tehran wants to broaden the agenda, then indeed, let it be broadened.