From Geneva with Love: Breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian Relations?

This is part of a strategic dialogue on Iran. You can read Duran Parsi’s piece here.

When U.S. Undersecretary of State William Nicholas Burns, met Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at the United Nations in Geneva on October 1, it marked the first-ever high-level bilateral meeting between Washington and Tehran in 30 years.

President Barack Obama is now practicing what he preached during his campaign by engaging Iran. But this new shift from the rather pointless policy of containment, so fervently embraced by all U.S. administrations since 1979, must be carefully implemented.

The Iranian government is ruling with an iron fist over its people, morphing into a fully fledged authoritarian military regime. The post-election show trials have already handed out five death sentences — a chilling deterrent to future protests.

It is unfortunate timing, as the country backslides, for the United States to now be sitting at the table with Tehran’s diplomats.

Obama’s Realism

Back in the United States, Obama’s diplomatic initiative is like catnip to some of his Republican critics, including Mitt Romney, who now find themselves charging their president with “appeasing” America’s favorite enemy. In fact, two weeks after the meeting in Geneva, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Iran Sanctions Enabling Act,” a bipartisan bill authorizing state and local governments to divest from companies doing business with Iran’s energy sector.

In Iran, people are still paying the price for protesting the elections of June 12 which, by and large, heralded a period of intense repression and concerted efforts to purge the reformist movement from the political scene.

In true realist fashion, the U.S. government is engaging Iran at a time when it really speaks with one voice — all levers of power in Iran’s complex political system are now fully controlled by hardliners and conservatives. Domestically, there is no opposition to dispute or question any diplomatic accords with the West since most of them have been locked up, silenced, or have yet to be put on trial. Diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran resembles more and more like talking to one of the many single-party authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. How very Henry Kissinger, Mr. Obama!

Timing is Key

Ironically, this may well be the time to engage. In strategic terms, the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany) are essentially dealing with an Iranian government that, because it lacks virtually any legitimacy vis-à-vis its own constituents, can’t afford to continue the nuclear stalemate indefinitely. Ahmadinejad’s loosely affiliated alliance of members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and hardliner clerics are hardly in the position of fighting two fronts.

Just a week prior to the Geneva talks, the U.S. government publicly confronted the Iranian regime over a secret second nuclear production site in Qom, fueling doubts over its intentions and sending an unequivocal message that more punishing sanctions will follow if Iran negotiated in bad faith. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates put it prior to the talks: “The Iranians are in a very bad spot now.” A Russian veto against multilateral containment efforts seemed unlikely, given the fact that Obama’s gambit in Poland on missile defense would most certainly result in a Russian quid pro quo on Iran at the UN Security Council. To that end, a top U.S Treasury Department official has already announced that the United States is developing a “comprehensive” Iran sanctions plan, which would entail punitive financial measures against Iran with the “largest possible international coalition.”

Notwithstanding Iran’s clumsy brinkmanship, which yet again manifested itself in missile tests and the IRGC’s volatile deterrence rhetoric directly before the Geneva meeting — a tactic which seems more like an outdated Cold War relic than 21st century diplomacy — the Iranian regime entered the negotiations with little leverage and room to maneuver.

Steps Forward, But How Big?

In diplomatic terms, the meeting represented a major breakthrough. It may mark the first step towards normality of relations between the United States and Iran. When both sides expressed a commitment for future talks, a major taboo had been broken. It remains to be seen whether both countries will embark on the path of rapprochement.

Replacing decades of mutual hostility and distrust will require a long and complex diplomatic process. Iran will most certainly expect security assurances from the United States and an end of sanctions. And the United States will expect transparency and concessions on the nuclear program, as well as Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While these expectations are high on both sides, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Iran granted IAEA access to the Qom facility and agreed to send 1,200 kg of LEU (which amounts to 75% of the country’s declared stockpile) to Russia, where it would be processed into fuel rods and sent back, thus preventing the possibility of turning it into weapons-grade material. This commitment, which was later reiterated by the chairman of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Ala’eddin Borujerdi, marks an important confidence building measure. However, the fact that Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hasan Qashqavi, denied that the nuclear issue had even been brought up during the P5+1 talks may just reflect the regime’s institutionalized chauvinism. But such claims also raise questions about Iran’s sincerity and commitment.

Obama made it clear that “we’re not interested in talking for the sake of talking. If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely.” Within the context of nuclear diplomacy, Iranians have certainly mastered the art of substituting concessions with tactical maneuvers.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s accusation that Shahram Amiri, researcher at Malek Ashtar University, was arrested by the United States during his pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia in June is likely to complicate future negotiations. Regardless of whether he defected or his disappearance had in fact been orchestrated by U.S. intelligence, Amiri may present a jeopardizing variable in this emerging engagement.

Human Rights Linkage Unlikely

For talks to be sustainable and productive, negotiations required the U.S. to rid itself from “regime change” rhetoric. Without this newfound commitment to realism, it’s unlikely that the meeting between Burns and Jalili would have taken place in the first place.

Given this dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy, it’s tempting to interpret the U.S.-Iranian détente as means for Iran to coat itself with legitimacy after a bloody summer and ongoing state-sponsored violence against its own people.

A so-called dual-track policy of discussing security and human rights separately is meaningless. When the EU engaged in the human rights dialogue with Iran between 2000 and 2005, it proved constructive (at least in the short-term) because stakeholders of democracy and human rights were part of Iran’s delegations. Human rights advocates, like-minded government officials, and reformist clerics were given a forum to demonstrate the accordance of Shia jurisprudence and international human rights. Yet, all of these stakeholders are now behind bars on precisely these grounds.

Post-election violence reflects the regime’s attempt to violently implement an almost totalitarian interpretation of the velayat-e faqih. In a recent public exchange between Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Grand-Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the latter — the country’s highest clerical authority — declared the current regime as unequivocally illegitimate.

Human rights talks are merely a placebo unless real demands are linked to negotiations. To that end, the United States and the EU must push for the reestablishment of a country mandate for the UN Special Rapporteur at the Human Rights Council. Meanwhile, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention must be allowed into Iran to probe the extent of political violence and torture. Political prisoners must be released immediately. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief must also assess the appalling human rights situation of the Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority, who are subject to repression under Ahmadinejad. Sadly, such demands and actions are unlikely to materialize, for they are likely to irritate Iranians, potentially breaking up negotiations.

Hope?

When Obama indicated a potential sea change in U.S.-Iranian relations during his Naw-Ruz address earlier this year, those in his administration surely anticipated a new like-minded Iranian government after the June elections. Keeping to his word, Obama finds himself now engaging with a regime, comprised of hardliners in the military and clergy, desperately substituting for its lack of a popular mandate with unprecedented authoritarianism. In strategic terms, this may well be a window of opportunity to get the concessions. The Pentagon’s most recent announcement that it is producing a 15-ton super bunker-buster bomb (GBU-57A/B), a so-called Massive Ordinance Penetrator, adds an element of military resolve to Obama’s peaceful deal.

In political terms however, separating security issues from human rights dashes the hopes of millions of Iranians — the very manifesto Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama continues to champion.

Bernd Kaussler is an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University, an associate fellow at the Institute for Iranian Studies, University of St Andrews, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.