As the nuclear talks between Iran and the great powers unfold, there is much concern that a hawkish Republican Senate would derail the negotiations. But no matter what the new Senate does, the Islamic Republic is unlikely to walk away from the negotiating table. Why? Because while the United States sees nuclear diplomacy as advancing the cause of detente, Iran sees it as yet another shield to hide its advancing of revisionist policies.
Since the exposure of its illicit nuclear program in 2002, Iran’s main intention has been to legitimize its expanding atomic infrastructure. The record shows that Iran’s cagey diplomats have gone far in achieving that objective. Although numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions have enjoined Iran to suspend all of its nuclear activities, there is little interest by the great powers to enforce the injunctions that they crafted in the first place. Last year’s interim accord — the Joint Plan of Action — not only acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium at home but also stipulated that, after a period of time, enrichment capacity could be industrialized.
These are impressive accomplishments for a state that not only defies the U.N. Security Council but also thwarts the International Atomic Energy Agency’s attempt to gain access to its scientists and sites. So long as Iran stays at the table it can count on further Western indulgences.
Iran has also gained much in non-nuclear sectors from its continued participation in the talks. Its dismal human rights record and harsh repression of its citizens are rarely mentioned by the Western chancelleries. A standard practice of America’s Cold War summitry was to press the cause of dissidents in all encounters with Soviet representatives. Given fears that Iran’s hyper-sensitive mullahs would abjure nuclear compromises should their domestic abuses be highlighted, Western diplomats have been largely silent about Iran’s domestic shortcomings. The nuclear talks and the prospects of an accord conveniently shield the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his penal colony from censure and criticism.
The Islamic Republic today is an aggressive state on the march in the Middle East. Through its proxies and aid it is propping up the Bashar Assad government in Syria and enabling its genocidal war against its citizens. Iran is the most consequential external actor in Iraq and has been instrumental in pressing its Shiite Muslim allies to reject substantial inclusion of Sunni Muslims in Iraq’s governing structure.
In the Persian Gulf, Tehran continues to press for eviction of the U.S. presence, appreciating that only America’s armada stands in the way of its hegemonic ambitions. Terrorism remains an instrument of Iran’s statecraft, particularly against Israel. Yet, there is a reluctance to push back on Iran in the increasingly chaotic Middle East for the fear that such a move would undermine the nuclear talks.
All the curiosities of America’s policy were on display in a letter reportedly sent recently by President Obama to Khamenei, offering to work with Iran in disarming the terrorist group Islamic State. Such correspondence misses the point that Iran has already rejected collaboration with the United States on regional affairs and that its leaders have claimed that America created Islamic State as a means of justifying its return to Iraq.
In the coming weeks, diplomats will try hard to craft a nuclear agreement with Iran. They may succeed or they may extend the talks beyond their own self-imposed deadline of Nov. 24. In the meantime, they will warn the Iranians that time is running out and various windows are about to slam shut. They will fret about how the Republican-controlled Senate will foreclose diplomacy by pressing its claims and maybe even passing sanctions measures, that the task at hand will be to keep Iranians at the table and the Senate at bay.
All of this misses the point that Iran participates in the talks because doing so serves so many of its interests. And one of those interests may yet be an accord that eases its path toward nuclear empowerment.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.