Caution: what Iran wants is not clear

RTR4VXAH-1024x542.jpgFollowing on from his article 'the Iran threat: inconclusive evidence' which can be found here Bob Glaberson takes a look at the evolving talks, arguing that clarity of purpose and conviction based on an accurate reading of the record is necessary.

The ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program do not exist in a vacuum. They are shaped by and reflect the wider aims of both sides. What Iran wants, its aims and intentions on the international stage, provides the key to what it hopes to achieve in the talks. It is therefore essential that the 5+1 nations (France, Britain, the US, Russia, China and Germany) keep first principles in mind: what does Iran want and what sort of threat does it pose? The strength of will to create a strong agreement depends in the last analysis on the answers to these questions.

Unfortunately, many people today think that it is clear what Iran wants. Some believe the evidence shows that Iran has taken a turn toward moderation; others think that it still has a radical agenda. Iran’s actions have not been consistently moderate or extreme. It is best therefore to describe its behaviour as unpredictable. 

Many of Iran’s policies are fluctuating and inconsistent:

  • In its dealings with the US the fact that Iran is currently willing to be flexible, to cooperate with it in the war against ISIS and to negotiate over its nuclear program must be set against a background of ongoing hostility.
  • In 2013 President Rouhani sent a Rosh Hashanah greeting to Israel. On the other hand Iran remains committed to a policy of not recognising Israel’s right to exist.

 In addition, Iran’s various policies are often ambiguous:

  • In Iraq, the Islamic Republic has a need to prevent Sunni forces from posing a danger to Iran and its interests. This does not preclude the possibility that it may also have ideological reasons for extending its power and influence into Iraq.
  • Iran’s pursuit of regional supremacy may be designed to bolster its security and / or by an anti-American animus fuelled by extreme ideology.

So varied and ambiguous are Iran’s different policies and behaviours (including verbal behaviour) it is difficult to see what motives guide their actions. A willingness to adopt a wide range of behaviours has sometimes been described as ‘pragmatism’ e.g. adopting whichever policy ‘works.’ But even an ideological regime may find that it works to adopt enough moderate policies in the short term to better promote radical ones in the long term. The toning down of rhetoric and agreeing to cooperate may paradoxically be the best way to achieve radical goals.

If the regime has such goals but can convince the world that its aims are, benign it will be easier to achieve regional hegemony and obtain a nuclear weapon than if it were to continue behaving scarily. Moderates and pragmatists may be given a freer reign during a time of delicate negotiations than would otherwise be the case. However, such measures may not last whatever the outcome of nuclear negotiations and cooperation with the US. The undermining by conservatives of reformist president Ayatollah Mohammed Khatami’s presidency ( 1997-2005 ) should serve as a cautionary tale. If the states currently involved in negotiations with Iran accept the argument about Iran’s turn toward moderation at face value they, rather than the Iranians, may be the ones to be disarmed.

It would be safest to conclude that there is still much we do not understand about Iran’s inner workings and that we do not know what its ultimate intentions are or how it may behave in future. The Islamic Republic has stopped trying to promote revolution in neighbouring states, at least overtly.

Defence of the national interest has assumed a greater importance. However, this does not mean that it has given up pursuit of a radical agenda. A lot depends on how hardliners think about defence. A threat seen in terms of culture and ideas, a tenet of extreme Islamist thinking, can’t be defended against by building up ones military defences alone; it may be thought necessary to go on the offensive and eradicate the threat at the source.

It is better to accept that the picture which most outside observers have is incomplete and deal realistically with the consequences which follow from it. Accepting that we don’t know what Iran really wants or what its basic assumptions are gives us a wider perspective than one which takes as its point of departure either an optimistic or pessimistic view. The worst-case scenario is that negotiators will over or under react to the sort of challenge Iran poses and fail to bring about the sort of settlement which reflects accurately the nature of that challenge.

Agnosticism about Iran’s true intentions is the best mind-set for the nuclear negotiations currently underway and caution is the wisest policy in the face of insufficient knowledge. A cautious approach means not assuming anything.  It means allowing for the possibility that the Islamic Republic or its powerful hardline faction may harbour extreme aims which will not be pacified by anything the west can do. Over-reacting to the evidence the other way and assuming dark motives could block the way to a deal as a result of mistrust.

It seems likely that a lot of hard bargaining lies ahead in the ongoing nuclear talks with a deadline of 30 June to reach a final agreement. Iran’s version of the recent framework agreement differs from that of the US in some key essentials such as sanctions, inspections and the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. To overcome these hurdles clarity of purpose and conviction based on an accurate reading of the record is necessary.

Bob Glaberson is a member of the Brighton Pavilion Labour Party and currently involved in the campaign to elect Purna Sen as the next member of parliament. He is a husband and father, living in Brighton for thirty years since moving to the UK from New York. He has been involved politically all his life on both sides of the Atlantic. He worked as a NHS counsellor and WEA / Sussex University adult education teacher for many years. He is a political writer with wide interests but his main focus being the Middle East.


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