The Impasse Between the U.S. and Iran

By Jamsheed Choksy

Expectations were high last week, as Americans and Iranians waited to see if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama would finally break through their nuclear impasse and chart a path to bilateral relations. In the end, echoing so many previous negotiations, both sides could only declare that resolving the deadlock was essential and then pledge to labor toward it.

While recent talks between Iran and the P5+1 have taken on a hopeful tone, a clear course of action is still absent. No timelines or frameworks for site inspection, enrichment control, or sanction lifting have emerged. This inaction mimics events when Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under moderate-President Mohammad Khatami. Then, as now, civility reigned, but diplomacy served as a stall tactic by Iran.

Like his predecessors, Rouhani has pledged that under no circumstances would Iran seek nuclear weapons since it wants only peaceful nuclear technology. Backing Rohani, at least for now, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorses “correct and logical diplomatic moves.” Among moves deemed appropriate by both Rouhani and Khamenei are ensuring the U.S. respects Iran’s nuclear rights. This demand, oft repeated by past and current Iranian officials, carries limited currency in Washington and has been a roadblock to a diplomatic solution.

Nonetheless, Obama expressed to Rouhani that the U.S. is willing to resolve the nuclear issue in ways allowing Iran to demonstrate its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. Like Rouhani, Obama acknowledges a sense of urgency because the window of opportunity for a diplomatic resolution may not remain open much longer.

Therefore, in his recent address to the UN General Assembly, the U.S. president sought to allay Iran’s concerns about its nuclear rights and its regime’s legitimacy by stressing, “We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” The message seemed well received. Rouhani, in his own address to the UN declared “the Islamic Republic of Iran will act responsibly.” In the same address, however, Rouhani stood fast for “the right to enrichment within Iran”—which Tehran knows has been another diplomatic impasse, but nonetheless believes the U.S. will eventually agree to uranium enrichment. 

Moreover, despite the public displays of openness to reconciliation, Rouhani stepped backward when offered several opportunities to be the first Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to meet with his American counterpart. The White House sought such an encounter at the UN itself, but Iran’s president declined, saying he didn’t have enough lead time. Another meeting could have taken place at a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Rouhani chose not to attend, claiming alcohol would be served—a violation of his religious principles. All that Rohani eventually extended to Obama was a fifteen minute phone call, alleging later that he did so under duress from the White House.

Avoiding direct contact suggests that Rouhani, like his predecessors, may not have as much broad-based support among other Iranian leaders as he claims. Khamenei often switches positions; he did so when his last two presidents appeared close to reaching nuclear deals.

Despite avoidance on the chief executive level, officials of lesser rank have been more open to participating in conversations.  EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Catherine Ashton invited Foreign Minister Zarif to attend the P5+1 talks on the sidelines of the UN assembly. Secretary of State Kerry was present, and commented that Zarif and he took some time to explore how to succeed diplomatically. That meeting became the first encounter between the two nations’ ranking diplomats since Madeline Albright met with Kamal Kharrazi in September 2000, also during the General Assembly.

However on the morning of the P5+1 session, Zarif, following a well-established pattern of Tehran’s prevaricating, had already made it clear to Iran’s state news agency that more outreach from Washington was necessary before any substantive progress could occur. Shortly thereafter, the White House accepted the inevitable outcome—the contact in New York would not lead to a quick breakthrough in negotiations. Indeed, follow-up technical talks a few days later in Vienna produced no substantial progress.

Successful diplomacy depends not just on each nation’s presidential administration but on other power brokers acceding to a peaceful resolution. This includes the U.S. Congress, Iran’s parliament, and American and Iranian conservative movements. Garnering support from these additional actors is no simple task.

Rouhani’s 2004 speech about assuaging Western negotiators while continuing Iran’s nuclear endeavors will prove hard to shake from the minds of American lawmakers. Consequently, even if Iran were to provide full disclosure to the UN Security Council and permit complete verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it is unclear whether the U.S. Congress would lift sanctions. Lobbyists for security interests of the U.S. and Israel undoubtedly will advocate for a wait-and-see approach.

Not surprisingly, Ayatollah Khamenei cautions that he is not optimistic about talks. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warn too, despite being told to stay out of the matter by Rouhani, “optimism on America’s offers must be rejected.” Khamenei and his cohorts, like members of the U.S. Congress, can watch, wait, and do little. The current diplomatic initiative may very well die through intransigence and infighting in both countries.

Iran has significantly less to lose the longer a bilateral standoff persists. Rouhani told the UN that nuclear knowledge has been domesticated, and it is unrealistic to presume impeding Iranian actions would succeed. European courts are gradually rolling back international sanctions that have been debilitating Iran’s economy as punishment for the nuclear quest. Furthermore, Iran has witnessed the U.S. demonstrate little appetite for military confrontation. Regrettably, Khamenei’s observation that “diplomacy is the arena of smiles and negotiations, but those behaviors must ultimately be understood within the context of fundamental tension” may reflect Tehran’s true disposition.

Consequently, it is important Washington be crystal-clear about negotiations lasting only a  limited duration. Within that time, full transparency of Iran’s nuclear program must be forthcoming, including open access by the IAEA to all nuclear-related sites. In return, Iran should expect the U.S. to agree to sanctions relief directly tied to Tehran’s cooperation. Iranian leaders must be equally convinced that if negotiations fail to advance beyond basic rhetoric, all other options will be considered.



Jamsheed K. Choksy is Professor of Iranian Studies, Chairman of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, and former Director of the Middle East Studies Program in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. He also serves on the U.S. National Council on the Humanities overseeing the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[Photo courtesy of Timothy Tolle]


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