In the aftermath of the summit meeting in Kazakhstan between Iran and the great powers, there is an unusual sense of optimism in the relevant capitals.
While in the past Iran’s media and politicians greeted such meetings with denunciation and pledges of defiance, this time the regime’s official class sounds moderate in tone and tempered in its claims. Even jaded American officials accustomed to Iranian obstinacy appear somewhat sanguine.
After nearly a decade of diplomacy, there is a faint and perhaps fleeting light at the end of one of the world’s most durable tunnels. The challenge for the next round of talks, in April, is to cement the progress that has been made and finally transact a resilient arms control agreement.
The essential aspect of Western strategy is that nuclear concessions by Iran will be met by relaxation of economic penalties. In diplomatic parlance this is known as “more for more” — the more of its nuclear portfolio Iran concedes, the more financial benefits it will reap.
Indeed, the sanctions regime orchestrated by the Obama administration has succeeded beyond the imagination of its skeptics and has managed to largely segregate Iran from the global economy.
But a conclusive resolution of the prevailing impasse is unlikely to be achieved through an exchange of nuclear concessions for sanctions relief. For the great powers to continue to make progress on this issue, they need to consider not just Iran’s economic distress but also its security predicament.
An important facet of America’s strategy of pressure that seldom gets much notice is the massive naval deployments in the Gulf and sale of considerable arms to the Arab sheikdoms. The conventional balance of power in the Gulf is decisively tilted to Iran’s disfavor. For a nation with historical pretensions of playing an important role in its immediate neighborhood, such a disadvantageous position only enhances the lure of nuclear arms. An important constituency in the Islamic Republic has long suggested that the only way the regime can negate the existing imbalance of power is through acquisition of the ultimate weapon.
Today, the international community is seeking to disarm a country whose practical security is being systematically endangered. All this is not to suggest that the United States should withdraw from the Gulf or abandon its allies and its long-term treaty commitments, but as part of its nuclear diplomacy Washington should be more cognizant of Iran’s security dilemmas.
The United States may want to consider what role Iran can play in its evolving Gulf security architecture. Along these lines, Washington may want to consider ideas that have stabilized other conflict-prone regions such as Europe. A Gulf security dialogue could encompass such issues as navigational rights, a mechanism for addressing border disputes, an early-warning system for military exercises, and even the prohibition of certain categories of weapons from the region.
During the decade that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been subject to international scrutiny and mediation, the most successful negotiations were conducted by the European foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain — the so-called E.U.-3 — that spearheaded this effort from 2003 to 2005. During that time, Iran suspended its nuclear activities, conceded to intrusive inspection measures and was seemingly prone to negotiating a mutually satisfactory agreement.
One of the innovations of the E.U.-3 was its recognition that the nuclear issue cannot be divested from the security context. To expedite their diplomacy, they not only conducted talks about economic sanctions and Iran’s nuclear infractions but also about overall security issues.
To be sure, the European track in time exhausted itself. The inability of the Europeans to offer Iran a reliable path out of its predicament and the rise of a new conservative government in Tehran confident that it could resume its nuclear activities and sustain its economic power, doomed the E.U.-3’s enterprising efforts.
Today, the situation is altogether different. The international community has coalesced to an unprecedented and unparalleled degree, as Iran is not just isolated in the region but is routinely censured and faces sanctions even by Russia and China. The conservatives in Iran are no longer as confident as they once were. Years of economic decline have caused at least some Iranian rightists to question their assumptions.
By crafting a diplomatic framework that covers both economic and security issues, the great powers can better impose significant curbs on Iran’s nuclear appetite.
Given that the E.U.-3 diplomatic approach has been the only one thus far to yield practical benefits, the current cast of negotiators would be wise to consider its adoption. It is hard for any nation to dispense with its nuclear ambitions when its security environment is persistently exacerbated. Trading economic sanctions for nuclear concessions may offer modest agreements, but a fundamental resolution of this issue may require a more imaginative re-conceptualization of the existing diplomatic paradigm.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.