As we inch closer to the crucial nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers, the so-called P5+1, the big question is whether this time will be different. Is Tehran willing to make the necessary compromises – from greater nuclear transparency to more stringent restrictions on its enrichment activities – to reverse the economic siege that’s pushing the country to the brink? And is it going to use the talks as a delaying tactic, or will it finally strike a mutually acceptable deal with the West?
From the perspective of the Iranian leadership, with sanctions really beginning to squeeze the Iranian economy, the nuclear impasse is morphing into a question of regime survival. This is precisely why this time could be different, and there are no shortages of diplomatic overtures on the part of Iran signaling its interest in resolving the crisis.
If there’s one thing that is consistent about the Islamic Republic of Iran, it’s the regime’s undying instinct for self-preservation. Moreover, the Iranian regime is anything but monolithic: even within the upper echelons of the politico-military leadership, pragmatic forces have always sought to prevent any crisis or conflict endangering the country’s territorial integrity. After all, the 1979 Iranian Revolution was nationalistic: its founding principles emphasized Iran’s territorial integrity and independence.
The Iranian regime is often characterized as a fundamentalist revisionist power, whose legitimacy – and very identity – is anchored in continued opposition to the West, especially Israel and the United States. Its rationality is often questioned on the grounds that its core leadership is composed of messianic individuals who don’t conform to the logic of survival and self-preservation. Some commentators – from American neo-conservatives to Israeli politicians – go as far as to say Iran is willing to pursue its radical ideals to the point of destroying itself. After all, the argument goes, Iran has endured three decades of relative international isolation to stay true to its political beliefs, so why would it change now?
Certainly, by any measure, the Iranian regime is peculiar. On the issue of foreign policy, the Islamic Constitution describes a state that is bound by an internationalist-idealist Islamic doctrine. There’s no mention of “national interests” that require a pragmatic and rational foreign policy in the Constitution, but instead articles 11, 152, and 154 describe a state that should pursue a much more revolutionary objective: the unity of the Islamic World (Umma) and the protection of the oppressed (Mostaza’fin) against tyrants (Mostakberin). In this sense, the Iranian Constitution prescribes a foreign policy that’s founded on an essentially internationalist Islamic charter.
However, pessimists tend to overlook the other side of the coin: the regime’s history clearly demonstrates how each period of ideological excess has been counter-balanced by a succeeding period of moderation, reform, and realism. Why? Because even in the Islamic Republic, the instinct for self-preservation and the concept of expediency (Maslaha) have always trumped policies that endanger the regime. And right now, the nuclear issue is increasingly looking like it will threaten the regime’s survival.
Time and again, the Islamic Republic has shown its willingness to be pragmatic. For example, on the one hand, intent on preserving cordial relations with China, Russia, and Syria, Iran adopted a low key position on the 1982 Syrian Islamic uprising, on Muslim repression in Western China, and Chechen Islamic separatist movements and Serb-led reprisals against Muslim Bosnians in the 1990s. On the other, Iran remained neutral over the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars against Iraq, and actually supported U.S.-led attacks against the Taliban in 2001.
Iran has also consistently demonstrated self-restraint. Faced with the prospect of external invasion and territorial defeat, the Iranian regime not only agreed to end the American hostages crisis in 1982, but it also signed on to U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, which concluded the Iran-Iraq War, all of which occurred at the height of Iran’s revolutionary zeal.
After the war, under the leadership of the pragmatists, Iran invested heavily in normalizing relations with Arab countries and improving relations with Europe. Later, during the reformist era in the early 2000s, Iran even agreed to halt its nuclear enrichment in order to prevent a military showdown with the Bush administration. In all these cases, the Iranian regime has prioritized regime survival when faced with an existential threat.
This bipolar tendency is a reflection of the Iranian state’s fundamentally dualistic character: it is simultaneously both a republican state (Jumhoori) bound by modern rationality and rule of law and a theocracy governed by Islamic principles and clerical supervision (Velayat-e-Faqih). The ebbs and flows of Iranian foreign policy have been determined by this eternal struggle between the two pillars, Islamic and Republican, of the Iranian nation-state.
Also, almost all periods of foreign policy crisis – from the U.S. hostage crisis to the 2006 and 2009 breakdown in nuclear negotiations – were a product of constant jostling among competing political factions. Today, Iran is firmly under the control of traditional conservatives, under the auspices of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With the regime internally consolidated, it’s clear with whom the West should deal.
Encouragingly, on three fronts, Iran has indicated its willingness to compromise. First, the supreme leader has agreed to upcoming talks in Istanbul. Second, top government officials – from the head of the Iranian nuclear agency to the foreign minister – have indicated their willingness to consider more intensive inspections and to cap enrichment levels. Finally, powerful pragmatists such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have called for direct talks with America and greater diplomatic flexibility to resolve the nuclear impasse.
The fact that the West has expressed its respect for Iran’s right to enrichment provides us another reason for optimism. Resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis will ultimately require sustained diplomacy at the very top levels. But the opening for a breakthrough seems there.