The U.S. undercuts its own power in Iran nuclear talks

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In an all-too-familiar ritual of diplomacy, the great powers and Iran will gather in Vienna on Tuesday to hammer out a comprehensive nuclear agreement. There will be lofty rhetoric about mutual understanding and mutual compromise. All sides will be advised to desist from their maximalist demands, as the best that can be achieved is an ambiguous accord that leaves Iran short of nuclear arms but still having made great strides toward nuclear capability. Such seemingly sober calculations miss the fact that the United States is not dealing with the Soviet Union but a beleaguered middling power that may still be coerced into more expansive concessions.

In more than a decade of nuclear diplomacy, some analysts have persistently advised Washington to seek a compromise solution that concedes important aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. Excessive demands, the thinking holds, would fracture the Western alliance that has generated an impressive sanctions regime. Moreover, this thinking continues, Tehran may walk away from the table, raising the specter of another conflict in the Middle East. The sensibilities of U.S. allies and the temperament of the mullahs are as important as proliferation imperatives. The final agreement may not be ideal, this mind-set concludes, but it will preserve the cohesion of the alliance and impose some restraints on Iran’s nuclear trajectory.

Such postulations misunderstand the lure of U.S. commerce and the primacy of U.S. power. It is true that European sanctions have been an indispensable complement to U.S. efforts to drain Iran’s coffers. However, should Washington insist on stringent nuclear terms, it is unlikely that the Europeans would resume large-scale investments in Iran. The various sanctions bills passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama have a secondary aspect: If enforced, a European bank or oil firm that concludes an agreement with Iran would be denied access to U.S. markets. The sizable U.S. economy will always trump whatever deals the Islamic republic is offering. To be sure, Europe’s business executives will complain and its intellectual elite will castigate the United States as an arrogant hyper-power, but in the end they will comply with U.S. prohibitions.

Some have suggested that the essential “red lines” of Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, must be taken into consideration as they are unlikely to be adjusted. Western negotiators would be wise not to insist that Iran ship out its stockpiled enriched uranium or shutter its many nuclear installations. The rise of pragmatists such as President Hassan Rouhani may have made Iran prone to a compromise, but Khamenei still lurks behind the moderates — and his basic injunctions have to be respected. The supreme leader and his hard-core disciples have withstood the pressure of sanctions and threats of military retribution; they may finally be ready for an accommodation with the West, but they will not abandon their nuclear aspirations altogether. In seeking an accord, negotiators should not make perfection the enemy of good enough.

Yet a close reading of Iran’s political scene over the past few years reveals that Khamenei’s most important red line has not been on the nuclear issue but on preventing moderates from regaining political power. In the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential election of 2009, Khamenei spent the next four years ranting against the so-called seditionists and accusing reformers of colluding with the West to undermine the theocratic state. Plots, conspiracies, fifth columns and subversives became the staple of Khamenei’s rhetoric. It appeared that the supreme leader would go to any length to prevent the office of the presidency from being reclaimed by those who did not slavishly conform to his ideological strictures. And then came the 2013 election, by which time the sentiments among Iranians at large had shifted away from the conservative perspective. Confronted with the prospect of enforcing these red lines through massive violence, Khamenei grudgingly opted for the presidency of Rouhani. Khamenei may not be a pragmatist, but he can be prudent — and faced with real threats to his power, he will retreat from well-delineated positions.

There is no tolerable end to Iran’s nuclear imbroglio other than a negotiated settlement. Given the disparity of power between the United States and Iran, Washington has an opportunity to craft a durable accord for arms control while preserving its coercive leverage. Such are the advantages of being a superpower with the world’s largest economy and intact alliances. But for that to happen, the United States must stop underestimating its power and overestimating its adversary’s resilience.