This is by no means a unanimous view. Karim Sadjadpour, another Iranian expert, recently testified before Congress that Iran’s domestic crisis is less salient than the conviction, shared by the Supreme Leader and other key regime elements, that “resistance against America,” along with “rejection of Israel’s existence,” are “inextricable elements of Iran’s revolutionary ideology,” and thus that the survival of the revolution — and their own survival — depend on perpetual hostility.
So any new bid by Washington to break the logjam would be a gamble — just as it would be for Rouhani. President Barack Obama has been conspicuously risk-averse on Iran, especially as there is a bipartisan consensus in favor of a policy of confrontation. After seeing his purely emblematic gestures (such as the New Year’s greetings he sent in the spring of 2009) batted away, Obama determined to err on the side of resoluteness. His policy has been to try to force Iran to cry uncle through escalating sanctions. Arguably, that policy indirectly lead to Rouhani’s election. Now the question is whether the administration is prepared to offer Rouhani’s negotiating team — as yet unappointed — the kind of concessions which might carry weight with the Supreme Leader.
Right now, Iran and the “P5 + 1” — the five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — are stalemated, like Dr. Seuss’s South-Going Zax and North-Going Zax, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Iran insists on an acknowledgment of its “right to enrich.” The P5 + 1 has no intention of conceding that notional right, and has demanded that Iran stop enriching nuclear fuel beyond the point needed for strictly civilian uses. In exchange, it has offered sanctions relief so modest that Iran has had very little inducement to negotiate seriously. The stand-off has to be broken by both sides. In an article in Foreign Policy, Robert Einhorn, the former State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, proposed that negotiators work out a long-term “road map” clarifying that Iran will be permitted to retain a nuclear-fuel program with international safeguards and offering phased sanctions relief, and then furnish immediate confidence-building measures in exchange for an end to fuel enrichment.
Is Obama prepared to make such a gamble, even in the face of angry protests from the right and from the Israel lobby? It seems not. A senior administration official told me, plainly: “Our fundamental position is where it is.” It’s true, this official adds, that with the election of Rouhani, “we are conceivably in a whole new place,” but “the onus is on Iran to give us some concrete response” to the current offer. Message from South-Going Zax to North-Going Zax: You go first. So the negotiations, if they ever restart, will go nowhere, but at least the West can continue to blame Iran.
That, however, would be the mother of all Pyrrhic victories. The collapse of the Morsi regime in Egypt, or the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, do not threaten American national security, however disastrous they are for the people of the region. But as Iran continues to enrich and stockpile highly enriched uranium, and moves ever closer to Israeli and U.S. red lines, President Obama, who has said that “containment” is not an acceptable policy, may find that he is left with no option save to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In the face of such a calamitous possibility, it is not enough to say that one has a defensible negotiating position.
Iran is different from other Middle East crises in one other fundamental respect. Washington has learned how very little it can do to calm the tumult of the Arab Spring. The supreme leader may ensure that American policymakers draw the same conclusion in Iran as well; but the choices Washington makes could have a decisive effect on the negotiations, and thus on the question of peace or war with Iran. Obama has a new chance to test how far Ayatollah Khamenei will move — or rather, to help Hasan Rouhani conduct that test. It’s true that conducting that test could cost precious time; but the cost of not conducting it could be much higher.
The president has husbanded his capital on the Middle East, taking a secondary role in Libya, steering as clear as he could of the violence in Syria and issuing muted statements on the coup-or-whatever in Egypt. In Iran, where he would have no domestic political cover for a bold initiative, he would have to splurge. That’s asking a lot. But that’s something we have a right to ask.