What Iran Wants Out of Talks With the U.S.

By Ray Takeyh
Monday, December 29, 2008

After an eight-year struggle over whether to engage Iran, the United States may finally be on the verge of launching a direct dialogue with its perennial Middle Eastern adversary. Washington has a long list of grievances to discuss, from sponsoring terrorism to the nuclear issue. The success of any talks will hinge on a critical unknown: What does Iran want? Today, an ascendant Iran views negotiations with the United States as a means of consolidating its gains and achieving American recognition of its regional status.

As part of its negotiating strategy, Iran will insist on comprehensive talks. Tehran will want to cover not just its contested nuclear program but also developments in Iraq, the conflicts of the Levant and a prospective Persian Gulf security system. To the Islamic Republic, such a broad-based platform would have the advantage of prolonging the process while signaling to its Arab competitors that the United States acknowledges Iranian centrality in stabilizing the Middle East. As a state with pretensions of preeminence, Iran will maintain that none of the region's conflicts can be resolved without its participation and consent.

The shadow of Iran's nuclear program will loom large in any discussion. During the Bush years, Tehran made significant nuclear advances and now possesses a sophisticated infrastructure with a growing enrichment capability. Iran will view any negotiations as a means of gaining American approbation for its existing nuclear status. Having been censured by four U.N. resolutions, Tehran hopes that talks with the United States will grant its nuclear program a degree of legitimacy, if not legality. In exchange, the Iranians may be amenable to offering confidence-building measures such as an enhanced inspection regime. Its desired endpoint is a nuclear program that enjoys grudging American, and thus international, approval.

The two powers may find more commonality on the issues of Iraq and a Persian Gulf security structure. As it surveys the horizon, Tehran's primary foreign policy goal is stability, not the export of the revolution. A functioning, Shiite-dominated Iraqi government with its sectarian blocs in check serves both American and Iranian objectives. Tehran's tempered conduct during the negotiations over the recently inked status-of-forces agreement regarding U.S. troops demonstrates its propensity for cooperation in Iraq. In a similar manner, Iran may yield to a continued, albeit greatly limited, U.S. presence in the Gulf. Despite their belligerent rhetoric, Iranian leaders have come to believe that their projection of influence in their immediate neighborhood is best achieved through diplomacy rather than subversion and violence. And a negotiated settlement whereby the United States pledges to take Iran's concerns into consideration would facilitate the extension of Iranian power in the Gulf region.

Although Iran will insist that the future of Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be part of any talks, its approach is likely to frustrate American interlocutors. It may surprise some that a state that routinely denies the legitimacy of Israel and even calls for its eradication could prove susceptible to reining in Hamas. But the tenuous nature of Iranian ties to Hamas and the prospect of countervailing gains elsewhere may lead Tehran to press Hamas toward more constructive participation in Palestinian politics. It is the Persian Gulf, not the Arab east, that has always been the primary focus of Iran's foreign policy. As Tehran gains power and influence in the Gulf, it may prove moderate on more distant terrain. The Islamic Republic will never recognize Israel, but it may limit its mischievous interventions in Palestinian affairs.

Hezbollah presents an altogether different challenge, as the links between the theocracy and the Shiite terrorist organization are intimate and long-standing. Iran routinely proclaims Hezbollah to be the most important resistance movement in the history of the Middle East and is likely to balk at disarming its illustrious and lethal protege. Indeed, Tehran will surely seek to use talks to pressure the United States to respect Hezbollah's position as a leading force in Lebanon.

In any dialogue with the United States, Iran will come to the negotiating table with firm ambitions and determinations. The task of American diplomacy will be to use the prospects of Iran's integration into the regional order to impose limits on Tehran's claims and to reorient its more objectionable practices. As the two contemplate their most sustained diplomatic encounter, Washington has no need to readily concede to Tehran mandates. The very fact that Tehran is willing to have extensive talks with the United States would be recognition on its part that American power can still present a barrier to its resurgence. But the United States must seriously consider how it can leverage talks to its advantage; its Iranian adversary has lost little time doing just that.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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