The two surprisingly small but notoriously difficult issues standing between the U.S. and Iran

June 18, 2013

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani claps during a press conference in Tehran. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

It's only Tuesday, and already both President Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have made comments this week hinting at their willingness to hold direct talks over the nuclear standoff that has created such antagonism between their countries. It's a promising sign. And both leaders might find that their end goals are actually quite similar. The big challenge actually has much more to do with process and domestic politics than with the contours of a deal.

Rouhani, in his first press conference, described the standoff as "an old wound that must be treated" and called for "strategic dialogue." Obama, in a Monday night interview, reiterated his interest in direct talks and noted Rouhani's election as cause for optimism. "The Iranian people rebuffed the hard liners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything, anytime, anywhere," he said. "Now, Mr. Rouhani, who won the election, I think indicated his interests in shifting how Iran approaches many of these international questions."

Both Obama and Rouhani repeated demands that appear to leave plenty of space for an agreement. Obama says Iran must prove that the country is "abiding by international treaties and obligations, that you're not developing a nuclear weapon." Rouhani insisted that "America must not interfere in Iran domestic affairs based on the Algiers Accord. They have to recognize our nuclear rights, put away bullying policies against Iran. And if such, and they have good intent, then the situation will change." In other words, Iran wants a right to enrich uranium and eased sanctions, the U.S. wants Iran to not develop a nuclear weapons program. Assuming both sides are representing their goals honestly, then a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, enforced by inspectors and rewarded with reduced sanctions, would seem to satisfy everyone.

It's worth pausing, before we get to the bad news, to appreciate how significant it is that the leaders of both Iran and the United States profess a mutually achievable resolution and the desire to reach it together. Such a thing would be impossible with, say, North Korea or Pakistan, both of which see their nuclear weapons as essential for their survival. Similarly, the differences between the U.S. and Taliban have been too wide to reconcile even after a decade of war and ever-softening U.S. demands. By comparison, the disagreements between the U.S. and Iran – how to best monitor Iranian nuclear sites, how far along in the enrichment process Iran would be allowed to go – seem pretty easy.

So what's standing in the way? Why is this still so difficult? Two things: mutual mistrust and domestic opposition.

The mutual mistrust is about more than just Obama wondering whether Rouhani can keep a promise that Iran won't enrich uranium or Rouhani suspecting that the U.S. actually wants to topple the Islamic Republic. After all, the U.S. can always insist on rigorous international inspections regimes or even fuel-swap deals to keep Iran from cheating; Iran can demand that Washington demonstrate good faith by rolling back sanctions as Tehran meets its obligations.

No, the mutual mistrust actually gets trickiest when it comes to a seemingly minor question that's actually crucial: who takes the first step? Both Iranian and American leaders are wary of getting played, which would cost them politically and allow the other side a free advantage. So neither has shown any real willingness to make the first concession, even if it's just a small one, which they see as just too risky. Both seem to feel they have no choice but to insist that the other side take the first step. That means they could both be waiting forever.

And that gets to the other big hurdle: domestic political opposition. Both Obama and Rouhani have to worry about political rivals and constituent groups who oppose any deal. The rhetoric within both countries is actually remarkably similar: Rouhani, like his former boss President Mohammed Khatami, have been criticized for being "soft on the West" for even signaling openness to diplomacy. Critics charge that no U.S. president is different from any other, that the United States cannot possibly be trusted and that it will only exploit any hint of compromise.

Both leaders know that they could pay significant political costs even to push through a successful deal, much less a failed one, which could cost dearly. Each also knows that his counterpart could always be blocked by his domestic political opponents: Obama could cut a deal only to have it killed or diluted by Congress, much as Rouhani requires the supreme leader's sign-off. You can see why neither Obama nor Rouhani is terribly excited to risk putting his stamp of approval on direct negotiations that might blow up their faces. And that's assuming they could even resolve the issue or who makes the first trust-building concession.

That's the sad state of the U.S.-Iran relationship today. Assuming that everyone is representing their interests and goals honestly and assuming that they could iron out the details, a mutually agreeable deal does exist. The hard part, maybe too hard, is getting there.

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Max Fisher · June 18, 2013