Coming soon: The US-Iran blame game

Washington has downplayed Tehran's intransigence, a position Iran perceives as weakness, and rightly so

A month ahead of the deadline for the current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over a comprehensive nuclear deal, the stated positions of the two sides could not be further apart. It is hard to see how they will bridge the gulf between them, especially as this negotiation is fundamentally not about achieving some middle ground on the nuclear issues. Rather, the onus is on Iran to adhere to international demands after it violated its NPT commitments, cheated and deceived, and lost the trust of the international community. In return for backing away from its military aspirations, sanctions would be lifted.

But for the past seven months, all we have heard from Iran is that it has done no wrong in the nuclear realm, and it therefore refuses to curb in a significant manner any of its nuclear activities: no dismantlement of centrifuges (indeed, Iran wants to add another 30,000!), no end to enrichment, no closing of facilities at Arak and Fordow, no discussion of its ballistic missiles (delivery system), and no discussion of Iran’s strongly suspected weaponization activities.

So, save the unlikely scenario of Iran backing away from all of its current positions, we are looking either to a bad deal, where the P5+1 – averse to the prospect of negotiations breakdown and thus eager to close a deal – agree to back away from their legitimate demands; a prolonging of the negotiations for up to another six months; or some kind of (temporary) breakdown or impasse.

And this is where the blame game comes into play, as a potentially decisive factor in the dynamic. Iran has long been preparing itself for the possibility of a breakdown, a scenario it will manipulate and present as the result of US intransigence and failure to act in good faith. Such preparation finds expression in the stark disconnect between Iran’s uncompromising positions on the nuclear issues, and its parallel statements that castigate the US while professing its readiness to cooperate and move forward in a positive mode if only the P5+1 would adopt reasonable positions. This is a well-known Iranian tactic, used also during the Ahmadinejad years. The message has always been that if only the other side would be more ‘reasonable’ (namely, accept all of Iran’s arguments and positions) a deal could be achieved in short order.

How has the US played the game? Since Obama came into office, the US has been trying to be cooperative. It has offered Iran opportunities to demonstrate that it has no military intentions, with the secondary aim of highlighting that if Iran does not respond positively to these opportunities, it will clearly emerge as the intransigent party. This was the thinking behind the fuel deal offered to Iran in 2009 for example. It took some time for this strategy to produce results, but with a little help from Ahmadinejad, by 2012 the US had convinced the world that it was making a real effort, and that it was indeed Iran’s lack of cooperation, coupled with continued aggressiveness and nuclear advances, that necessitated harsh economic and financial sanctions.

But since the election of Rohani in 2013, the US abandoned this strategy — it basically quit the blame game, even though it feared that Iran was still playing. Thus, we found the Obama administration bending over backwards since October 2013 so as not to upset Iran, with the aim of preempting any Iranian attempt to blame it of acting in bad faith, which could risk upsetting the fragile negotiation. The US has either been silent on, or downplayed, both Iran’s intransigent nuclear positions, as well as the continued hateful rhetoric coming from the supreme leader. It is not even clear whether the administration will press hard to confront Iran with the weaponization aspects of its nuclear program, for fear of humiliating Iran, even though confronting Iran with this evidence would help cement the claim that the problem lies with Iran, not the US.

And despite the US administration’s best efforts, Iran is poised to blame it anyway. Iran most likely perceives US instances of holding back as an expression of its weakness, which is not far from the truth when we take into account that by working so hard to keep the talks alive, the US is projecting its dependence on the negotiations framework. And ‘dependence’ equals ‘weakness’ in any bargaining situation.

For Iran, beyond a P5+1-Iran deal which enables it to maintain the critical components of its nuclear program while still gaining sanctions relief, an impasse in the talks would be the next best outcome. Iran would emphatically claim to have negotiated in good faith, and been blocked by an uncompromising US. It would hope to convince other states to return to economic cooperation, while impressing upon them that it did everything it could to negotiate a deal.

This Iranian ‘frame game’ cannot go unanswered. It’s high time to push back while openly clarifying that when one cuts through all the smiles of the past seven months, on the substantive issues, Iran’s overwhelming refrain has been a resounding and intransigent ‘no’.

About the Author
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of 'Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation'