Why the U.S. Should Go for a Grand Bargain With Iran

It’s all but impossible and will take years, but it must be tried: Tehran holds the key to the whole region.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif (R) attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany about Iran's nuclear program September 26, 2013 on the sidelines of the General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. 
AFP/Getty Images
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Nov. 6, 2013, 9:32 a.m.

Of the mul­tiple ne­go­ti­ations Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry has star­ted in re­cent months, it’s dif­fi­cult to say which of them looks more im­possible. Is it the Geneva peace con­fer­ence on Syr­ia, which has been pushed back be­cause, well, neither side has any real in­terest in talk­ing? Is it the Is­raeli-Palestini­an ne­go­ti­ations, which both sides (sur­prise!) say are fail­ing? Or is it the ef­fort to try dip­lomacy with Ir­an, which re­sumes Thursday, also in Geneva?

The ef­fort to ne­go­ti­ate away Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar threat is hard enough, but the idea that Tehran and Wash­ing­ton can achieve even the most mea­ger mod­us vivendi in re­la­tions looks as un­likely as it did three dec­ades ago. As if to drive home the point — and send a mes­sage to the new, pro-ne­go­ti­ation pres­id­ent, Has­san Rouh­ani — re­gime hard-liners on Monday or­ches­trated one of the largest of the an­nu­al anti-Amer­ic­an demon­stra­tions to com­mem­or­ate the U.S. Em­bassy host­age-tak­ing in 1979.

And yet as dis­tant as it all looks, the pos­sib­il­ity of some kind of “grand bar­gain” ex­ists. A deal that would not only put Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram on hold (that’s all you’re go­ing to get) but might also prompt mod­er­ates in Tehran to tem­por­ize the re­gime’s oth­er destabil­iz­ing policies in the Mideast and Cent­ral Asia — its sup­port for Hezbol­lah in Syr­ia, its anti-Is­rael rhet­or­ic and ter­ror­ism, and its tem­por­ary al­li­ance with the Taliban in neigh­bor­ing Afgh­anistan, among oth­er things.

The fact is, little of note is go­ing to get done on any ma­jor is­sue without Ir­a­ni­an co­oper­a­tion of some kind, and that has not proved im­possible in the past. As Ry­an Crock­er, one of Amer­ica’s most dis­tin­guished dip­lo­mats, wrote in The New York Times on Monday, “Al­though most Amer­ic­ans may be un­aware of it, talks with Ir­an have suc­ceeded be­fore and they can suc­ceed again.”

Es­pe­cially be­cause Rouh­ani and his worldly for­eign min­is­ter, Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif, have them­selves been part of some of those quasi-suc­cess­ful talks. In 2001-02, for ex­ample, Ir­an provided in­valu­able as­sist­ance in sta­bil­iz­ing the new Kar­zai gov­ern­ment in Afgh­anistan (Za­rif led the talks for Tehran). Ir­an also be­came the largest non-OECD donor to post-Taliban Afgh­anistan, pledging $550 mil­lion worth of as­sist­ance (about the same as the U.S.) at the Tokyo con­fer­ence.

Only days after that con­fer­ence, in an­oth­er of the dis­astrous de­cisions that so marked his first term, George W. Bush de­clared Ir­an to be part of the “ax­is of evil,” im­me­di­ately over­turn­ing the pro­gress be­ing made by his own dip­lo­mats. Ac­cord­ing to Ir­a­ni­an mod­er­ates I spoke to dur­ing a 2007 vis­it to Ir­an and then later on, the Bush speech also dis­cred­ited every­one in Tehran who favored rap­proche­ment. “The hard-liners, when we talk with them, they say, ‘Dear friend, you talked with the Amer­ic­ans in a very mod­er­ate way, and you didn’t get any res­ult at all,’ ” S.M.H. Ad­eli, Ir­an’s urbane former am­bas­sad­or to Lon­don, told me then.

Even so, in the spring of 2003, Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cials, us­ing their reg­u­lar Swiss in­ter­me­di­ary, faxed a two-page pro­pos­al for com­pre­hens­ive talks to the State De­part­ment, in­clud­ing dis­cus­sions of a “two-state solu­tion” between Is­rael and the Palestini­ans. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­missed it at the time as du­bi­ous. Za­rif, a ca­reer dip­lo­mat edu­cated at the Uni­versity of Den­ver who has con­duc­ted per­haps more dir­ect ne­go­ti­ations with Amer­ic­ans than any oth­er Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cial, also had a hand in that man­euver.

The usu­al re­sponse of skep­tics is that the Ir­a­ni­an lead­er­ship is just bar­gain­ing for time, es­pe­cially in build­ing a bomb. Op­pos­i­tion to a re­la­tion­ship with the “Great Satan” and any re­cog­ni­tion of its min­ion, Is­rael, runs deep in the mar­row of the Is­lam­ic Re­pub­lic. The ba­sic ideo­logy of the Ir­a­ni­an re­volu­tion, after all, was fostered by op­pos­i­tion to the U.S.-backed Shah and the CIA-or­ches­trated ouster of Pres­id­ent Mo­hammed Mossade­gh in 1953. Without Amer­ica as an en­emy, the mul­lahs don’t have as much reas­on to jus­ti­fy their rule.

But while it’s not about to fade away, all evid­ence the Ir­a­ni­an re­volu­tion is in a state of tur­moil, thanks in large part to harsh in­ter­na­tion­al sanc­tions that have fi­nally, after many years, be­gun to set in mo­tion a deep­er mac­roe­co­nom­ic mal­func­tion, in­clud­ing a wor­ry­ing amount of in­fla­tion. Hard­liners and mod­er­ates are openly fight­ing. Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that the chief hard-liner on nuc­le­ar and oth­er is­sues is the su­preme lead­er, Ayatol­lah Ali Khame­nei, but he’s giv­en Rouh­ani far more flex­ib­il­ity than in the mid-2000s, when as Tehran’s chief nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­at­or he was slapped down. More to the point, Khame­nei is now 74, and it’s very un­clear wheth­er there will be a su­preme lead­er to fol­low him.

What is bey­ond dis­pute is that on nearly every front from Syr­ia to Ir­aq to Afgh­anistan, Ir­a­ni­an co­oper­a­tion is a ne­ces­sary in­gredi­ent for any meas­ure of U.S. suc­cess. In Syr­ia, Bashar al-As­sad is gain­ing ground and re­fus­ing to talk to the rebels largely be­cause of the help he’s get­ting from Ir­an-backed Hezbol­lah troops. In in­creas­ingly vi­ol­ence-wracked Ir­aq, Shiite Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Ma­liki feels he has a freer hand to side­line Sun­nis (thereby giv­ing new life to al-Qaida in Ir­aq) be­cause of sup­port from Tehran, to which Ma­liki is also grant­ing over­flight rights for weapons sup­plies in­to Syr­ia. If post-2014 Afgh­anistan is to gain any sta­bil­ity, Ir­an must be in­duced to re­sume its formerly hos­tile re­la­tion­ship with the Sunni Taliban in the West. And if Ir­an can be per­suaded to fur­ther dis­tance it­self from Hamas (Tehran re­portedly slashed fund­ing in an­ger after Hamas moved its headquar­ters from Dam­as­cus to Qatar) and at least quiet its anti-Is­rael rhet­or­ic, that would make a Palestini­an peace deal more pos­sible.

Above all, of course, an Ir­an that opens it­self to in­ter­na­tion­al nuc­le­ar in­spec­tion would put con­trol rods in the most dan­ger­ously destabil­iz­ing trend in the re­gion. Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cials have hin­ted for years that, un­der cer­tain con­di­tions, Tehran might be will­ing to stop short of build­ing a bomb. “Ir­an would like to have the tech­no­logy, and that is enough for de­terrence,” Ad­eli told me in 2007. But mod­er­ates who might go in that dir­ec­tion, like Za­rif, must have am­muni­tion with which to si­lence the hard­liners. And that means a deal.

As far as the idea of work­ing with a hard­line Is­lam­ist re­gime, is that really so im­possible? For a long time re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives in Ir­an have fondly in­voked the “China mod­el,” whereby the man­dar­ins in Beijing man­aged to quash polit­ic­al dis­sent after the Tianan­men Square demo­cracy move­ment by re­dir­ect­ing the de­sire for more free­dom in­to a boom­ing eco­nomy. Even they real­ize that only eco­nom­ic suc­cess can en­sure the fu­ture of the Is­lam­ic re­pub­lic. But for Ir­an it’s only pos­sible if they can find a way to agree to oth­er things. For Wash­ing­ton, it’s ne­ces­sary to at least try.

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