Forget the Public Diplomacy, Iran and the U.S. Have a Long Road Ahead

Published  in the Globe and Mail, September 26, 2013.

The past weeks have seen a shift in Iran-U.S. relations. Instead of the usual bombast we are seeing measured, even respectful points from the two presidents. We hear that Iran’s Supreme Leader has, in his usual round-about and never entirely certain way, blessed the idea of talks.

All of this is good news, but it does not mean that the problems have been solved; not by a long shot. We are witnessing the setting of the stage for talks. The talks themselves have yet to begin. There is no reason to expect that they will be quick or easy. Indeed, one of the major problems they may face is expectations, based on the recent public diplomacy, which are too optimistic.

Beyond the nuclear question, Iran wants a much bigger say in regional affairs than the U.S. (or many of its allies) will accept.

The things that separate Iran and the U.S. are daunting. On both sides, there are domestic political spoilers who would love to see the rapprochement fail. Other countries (including Israel and Saudi Arabia) are deeply worried that an Iran-U.S. deal will sell out their interests. They will raise difficulties. And there are decades of mutual suspicion to be overcome.

Ironically, the nuclear issue may be one of the easier ones to solve, at least technically, if there is a political will to do so. The contours of a deal have been apparent for a long time. Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology would be recognized, in return for some very strict limitations on how, and to what extent it does so, backed up by significant verification protocols.

But the devil resides in the details, both technically and politically. Technically, finding ways to verify any deal will be a challenge, particularly since Iran has hidden things in past. Perhaps the biggest problems will be political. Iran will baulk at any hint that it is accepting ‘punishment’ for past transgressions, while the U.S. will demand a full accounting of those transgressions. Iran will demand that sanctions be removed, but Barack Obama does not have the ability to unilaterally lift most of them – Congress must do that, and Israel (a powerful influence in Congress whose conditions for a nuclear deal are far more onerous than Obama’s) will have something to say about it.

Beyond the nuclear question, Iran wants a much bigger say in regional affairs than the U.S. (or many of its allies) will accept. Iran seeks a diminution of America’s role in the region, particularly in the Persian Gulf. While the U.S. energy picture is changing due to increasing self-reliance, Washington knows that global economic stability is still dependent on the security of the Gulf energy supply; it is not likely to leave the area anytime soon.

These broader issues will play out in discussions over such things as the Iranian role in Syria and its support of groups which oppose the Gulf monarchies and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. These will be very tough discussions. The issues are fraught with complications and emotions, but the deeper question at stake is each country’s vision of the Middle East. These are long-term, strategic questions, and there is little evidence that the thinking in either capital (or in those capitals that will be watching closely) has changed.

There are some questions on which a meeting of the minds may be possible. Neither side has an interest in the return of a Taliban-type government in Afghanistan, for example. They have shown in past that they can co-operate there, however tentatively and briefly, even as they have also supported proxies inimical to each other.

So the apparent warmth which is creeping in to Iran-U.S. relations is welcome and necessary if there is to be a rapprochement. Also welcome is the fact that talk of military action against Iran is receding, both because of the improved atmosphere and also because the American people have shown by their attitude towards the question of bombing Syria that they have no appetite for further military adventures in the region.

But these developments are only a precondition for what will be some very hard talks which are likely to take time and which will have enemies all around.

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