Iran’s Iron Will

Once again, we see light at the end of the tunnel.

The negotiators of Iran and those of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P-5) — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States, plus Germany — have just completed a round of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The talks have been on Iran’s nuclear program, widely suspected to be aimed at producing a nuclear weapon. The suspicion first arose from Iran’s failure to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. On that basis, excruciating sanctions have been imposed on Iran.

What Iran wants is the lifting of those sanctions, since, it insists, its nuclear program is peaceful and thus upheld by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Security Council want airtight guarantees that Iran isn’t out to make a nuclear bomb — like Iran stopping all uranium enrichment operations. That’s what the negotiations are about.

The negotiators’ mood is upbeat. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi describes the result as “a milestone. A turning point in the negotiations.”

A Western diplomat confirms that the talks have been “more constructive and more positive than previous meetings.”

No cigars yet. They haven’t agreed on anything, except to meet in early April after consultations among technical experts in mid-March.

In April last year, the light at the end of the tunnel that appeared after talks between Iran and the council in Istanbul turned out to be an illusion. Negotiations bogged down after that.

This time, the ray of hope may be genuine. What’s the difference? The US elections are over and Obama has won. The anti-Iran polemics of Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu have lost much of their siren’s call. There’s now a great deal more sanity and straight thinking in the West about Iran and its nuclear project.

How do you think straight about Iran? Don’t start by asking if Iran is out to make a nuclear bomb. That’s putting the cart before the horse.

Start with a known fact — like the fact that Iran is not cooperating with the IAEA. Then look for an explanation for this fact.
To many conservatives, this is a no-brainer: Iran is bent on producing a nuclear bomb. That, they say, is the only plausible explanation. But is it?

Logicians tell us that the best explanation for a fact is often not the most dramatic but the simplest. That Iran wants the bomb is the most dramatic explanation to Iran’s behavior, and it shouldn’t be ruled out. Hence it’s reasonable for Obama to warn that if Iran would make a move to manufacture a nuclear bomb, then all options would be on the table, including the military option. The US assessment is that Iran has made no such move.

But there’s a simpler explanation for Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the IAEA. And that’s human pride. Iran simply doesn’t want to look like it’s caving in to Western demands that it abandon its right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Not even when that demand is backed by sanctions. And more sanctions.

Iran’s iron will is a function of self-respect. Iran can give and take but won’t merely capitulate. That’s my reading.

Pride is also at work on the other side of the table: if the West gave too much too soon of what Iran wants — the lifting of sanctions — it would also look like capitulation.

Both sides must therefore carefully calibrate and pace their concessions to each other so each will get most of what it wants without loss of face on the other side.

And eventually we may yet see an Iran with a nuclear program, but one diminished in a way that reassures the West. It will also be an Iran relieved of the torment of sanctions.

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