A few days ago, a top UN official announced a new round of talks with Iran over access to restricted nuclear sites. The talks are the latest in a diplomatic effort to engage Iran over its nuclear program, reflecting recent optimism that a negotiated solution is possible. Only a few weeks ago Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the P5+1 talks in Baghdad, confidently expressed her desire to secure “the beginning of the end” of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Both parties left Baghdad empty handed, though faith in a diplomatic way forward remained, as both parties agreed to meet again in Moscow on June 18th.
While misguided, this latest bout of optimism over diplomatic engagement with Iran—nowhere to be found only a few months ago—is not entirely unwarranted. The latest round of comprehensive sanctions from the U.S. and Europe has had crippling effects. Crude oil exports—Tehran’s lifeline— were down as much as 1 million barrels a day in April. The IEA (International Energy Agency) expects that sanctions, once in full force, will curb Iran’s oil exports by 50 percent. A frenzy of panic, moreover, has thrown the Iranian currency into a free fall. In just six weeks, the Iranian rial lost half its value.
International observers have accordingly surmised that Iran is returning to the negotiating table after a year to seek a way out. “It’s not an accident that suddenly they want to meet with the P5+1,” said former Obama administration official Dennis Ross, in reference to the latest round of sanction. However, the West has once again misinterpreted Tehran’s intentions. Iran’s return to the negotiating table is out of confidence not insecurity—confidence that the West will eventually accept an Iranian enrichment program and confidence that it can continue to hold out, if the West does not. “Without violating any international laws or the nonproliferation treaty, we have managed to bypass the red lines the West created for us,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, Iranian negotiators returned from the Istanbul talks in April confident that “all that remains is a debate over the percentage of enrichment.”
An Iranian enrichment program, of course, runs counter to the West’s central demands—and it’s unlikely that the West will warm to a deal that legitimizes Iran’s enrichment program anytime soon. If unable to secure such a deal, Iran will likely hold out until a more favorable opportunity arises. “We view the nuclear episode as a heavy retreat for the Western powers,” said Mr. Taraghi. “But acceptance of our nuclear program takes time, we understand that.” This is not to say Western sanctions are ineffective. A foreboding mood pervades the streets of Tehran as hyperinflation and commodity scarcity take their toll of daily life. Tough times are ahead, most Iranians agree.
But it is nothing to which Tehran is unaccustomed. The current regime has faced successive waves of sanctions since the 1979 revolution. It has accordingly embraced its autarkic existence, and has become exceedingly good at cultivating sources of legitimacy separate from economic prosperity through it Islamic ideology and fiery nationalistic, anti-western rhetoric. While Western sanctions might throw any other government into panic, it hasn’t fazed the Iranians. Of course, the regime’s ideological buttresses have lost much of its luster to the common Iranian. Such was the deafening message of the 2009 Green Revolution. But when all else fails, Tehran has the Basij and Revolutionary Guard—its mechanisms of repression and coercion—to fall back on.
However, despite its rhetoric of “a nation of martyrs,” the regime is not impervious to cost-benefit calculations. If the West remains firm and sanctions continue taking their toll, Tehran will begin considering its options. When forced to decide, Tehran has always prioritized domestic security over international adventurism. In 1998, Ayatollah Khomeini chose to embrace a ceasefire with Iraq, akin to drinking a “poison chalice,” rather than risk a naval conflict with the U.S.
Though Khomeini had ordained defeating Iraq as a holy obligation, he saw discontentment with the war growing at home, and feared a second front with the U.S. could undermine his rule. Similarly, after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, Washington warned that further attacks would be met with retaliation. Sensing risk incommensurate with the gain of further provocation, Tehran stopped ordering attacks on U.S. facilities.
Thus, despite being the world’s foremost patron of terrorism, Tehran has evidently followed a cautious calculus internationally. However, its nuclear program is also a supreme source of legitimacy at home. While Iranians were acrimoniously divided over the 2009 elections, few at the time opposed Tehran’s decision to pursue nuclear energy. The image of Iran fighting against the intrusive international community for its natural right to nuclear energy has shored up support in a time of otherwise popular discontent.
But no legitimating factor is worth economic destruction. And already Iranian support for their country’s nuclear programs has dropped precipitously in the face of economic hardship. If the West offers Tehran an exit option that prevents it from loosing face, the regime may very well cut its losses. Until then, however, Tehran will hold out. The tragedy of the situation is that by the time Iran is ready to make such a deal, the West will likely have grown disillusioned with negotiating, and be mulling strictly military options. The West best temper current expectations while remaining receptive to negotiations—or else the moment of monumental breakthrough will pass by with either a whimper or the bang of bombs.