It is now almost exactly four years ago since President Barack Obama famously offered Iran America’s hand of friendship if Tehran would unclench its fist. Though no one is speaking of friendship today—or even mutual respect—a deal may finally be in the making. Both sides appear to be preparing the ground, in their own ways, for a compromise. The precipitating factors are a combination of realizing that the escalation game has reached a dead end and the quiet signaling of acceptance of the other’s red line.
The marginal utility of further escalation is rapidly declining. The White House is on the record opposing additional sanctions at this point, arguing that it will undercut their strategy. Sanctions have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy and helped create medicine shortages, but there are no clear signs yet that sanctions have softened Tehran’s nuclear stance. Similarly, the Iranians appear to have realized that further escalating and accelerating their nuclear activities by increasing enrichment levels beyond 20 percent, for instance, will not provide Iran with added leverage. Rather, such measures would risk transforming a chicken race into a street fight with no honorable exit options.
Behind the tough rhetoric emanating from both sides, veiled hints at a major compromise can be found. In just the last few days, editorials in both the New York Times and the Washington Post have argued that a deal should be made which accepts limited enrichment in Iran under five percent and the lifting of some sanctions in return for unhindered inspections. The Obama administration has also hinted at this. If implemented, this would be an acceptance of Iran’s red line and the most compelling force generating a reciprocal step from Tehran (far more so than the pinch of sanctions).
Perhaps not uncharacteristically, though, the reference to accepting limited enrichment in Iran has been tucked away in editorials or comments that otherwise sound hawkish and uncompromising. Similarly, the stern rhetoric from the Obama administration is aimed at giving the impression that the U.S. is in firm control of the situation and that the Iranians are being coerced into submission. Tehran is no different: proponents of a bilateral dialogue with Washington in Tehran argue that the time is ripe for establishing relations with the U.S. due to Iran’s strength and America’s waning influence in the region.
Whereas the perception of victory through submission of the other is paramount to both sides today, this has not always been the case. As I describe in my book, A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, the Obama administration originally sought a win-win solution in 2009—and the perception of a win-win. A senior U.S. official told me at the time that this was necessary “[n]ot because we wanted to do Iran a favor, but because there was no other way to get a deal." The need to have a deal accompanied with a small dose of humiliation of the other has prevented agreements to occur in the past and can do so again.
The massive sanctions regime imposed on Tehran—even before any deal has been struck—touted by Washington as essential to get the ‘’Iranians to come back to the table” have largely been unnecessary. Even absent these sanctions, a deal could have been struck much earlier had Washington been willing to accept limited enrichment in Iran under strict inspections. In fact, Washington could have gotten a better deal if this step had been taken at a time when Iran had not started enrichment at the 20 percent level or amassed 7,000kg of low-enriched uranium.
The sanctions, however, are necessary to achieve another objective: the humiliation factor. The massive damage sanctions have done to Iran’s economy helps create the perception that Tehran is coerced into the deal by a coalition led by the United States and Europe that clearly has the upper-hand in the power struggle between the two.
This may come across as petty, but it is rooted in factors beyond pride, vanity or political reputation. At the end of the day, the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program is not ultimately about enrichment; it is about Iran’s challenge to the U.S.-led regional and global order. Tehran makes no secret of its desire to expel extra-regional powers and replace the current American order. This is a long-standing Iranian objective dating back to the time of the Shah, who sought a Persian Gulf free of any permanent military presence by outside forces.
Any deal on the nuclear issue that does not carry with it a dose of humiliation of the Iranians would render Tehran’s challenge to the U.S. partly successful: Tehran’s intransigence would have paid off, Washington and its regional allies fear. Particularly for Washington’s Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, this would be viewed as a potentially existential developmentsince the survival of these authoritarian regimes is directly tied to the sustainability of the American order in the region. Any crack in that orde—or in the perceived determination of the U.S. to sustain it—could spell disaster for these Arab kingdoms. These fears are particularly pronounced today due to Obama’s “betrayal” of Hosni Mobarak in Egypt, as the Persian Gulf Arabs see it.
From this perspective, the deal must not just prevent a nuclear weapon in Iran, it must also put Iran “back into its place” within the regional pecking order. While acceptance of limited enrichment in Iran opens the way for a nuclear deal, strangulating sanctions are deemed necessary to remind Tehran and other regional powers who is the de facto hegemon in the region—and who isn’t.