United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Nukes, Negotiations and “Argo”

John Limbert

What is the lesson of “Argo” when it comes to dealing with Iran?
            The historical thriller has swept the awards season. “Argo” probably has a better chance of winning an Oscar on February 24 than the negoti­ators have of breaking their long deadlock. The film’s real lesson is that the events of 1979 still have the power to affect events today. The hostage crisis casts its shadow over Iran’s relations with the United States and other nations.
            Attitudes shaped by those events have led both sides to expect rapprochement efforts to fail— including the upcoming negotiations between the six world powers and Iran scheduled for February 26.  Both Iran and the United States must deal with their past grievances to move on.
How does the 1979 hostage ordeal shape Iran and U.S. attitudes today?
      “Argo” highlights the negative attitudes that the two countries have held toward each other for the past three decades. Its brief introduction attempted to provide historical context behind the embassy takeover. But the film did not convey the prevailing Iranian sense of grievance—real or imagined—that led to the attack, and to the emotional response in the streets of Tehran.
      Jimmy Carter’s administration was oblivious to the depths of resentment and fury in revolutionary Iran, and to the suspicion that would greet the October 1979 decision to admit the shah to the United States for medical treatment. Many Americans still do not understand that resentment, which many Iranians still hold. The film may have reinforced stereotypes of Iranians as violent, fanatical and deceitful.  
            The Iranian government has also been oblivious to the effect of issuing commemorative stamps and holding annual rallies to mark the embassy takeover. These actions have reinforced the perception that Iranians are irrational or that they will not negotiate in good faith with the United States. Mohammad Khatami’s presidency from 1997 to 2005 was a notable exception, as turnouts for rallies were significantly lower at that time.
            The current presidents of both countries have noted the importance of perceptions and attitudes. In a 2009 interview with Al Arabiya, President Obama said that negative “preconceptions” hamper peace efforts in the Middle East. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decried the “negative mentality” (zehniyat-e manfi) between Iran and the United States in comments to American academics in October 2012.
What has been the Iranian response to “Argo”?
            “Argo” has ripped a scab off an old wound and reminded many Iranians of an ugly chapter in their history. The film has forced Iranians to confront the events of 1979. Until now, many Iranians, including Ahmadinejad, had treated the events surrounding the embassy takeover as ancient history. In September 2010, I asked Ahmadinejad about the hostage crisis. “You were treated well, weren’t you?” he said. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed the same attitude in April 1980, while I was a hostage with 51 other Americans. He visited the hostages and told the press that they were “very happy and even thanked their captors for treating them so well.”
            The film has exacerbated a deep divide among Iranians. Private showings of “Argo” have reportedly revived the debate on the wisdom or folly of the embassy takeover, and how the government allowed the student sit-in to become a major international crisis.
            Critics of the embassy takeover claim it sent Iran careening down a course of war, brutality, extremism, repression, and international isolation. They argue that it unleashed a torrent of hysteria that destroyed any chance that the revolution would lead to something better for most Iranians. The takeover is a source of shame for some. But others seem proud of the students who stormed the embassy.
            Some Iranians have criticized “Argo” for its portrayal of post-revolution Iran.  “We Iranians look stupid, backward, and simple-minded in this movie,” a self-described film specialist told The New York Times at a conference in Tehran in February. Participants of the third annual “Hollywoodism” conference claim there is a hidden agenda behind American films like “Argo.”
How might the outcome of the upcoming negotiations be based on past fears and lack of trust?
            Iranian distrust of the United States could be an obstacle to multilateral negotiations. “There are many reasons for this distrust,” said Supreme Leader Khamenei in a February 2013 speech. He claimed that Iranian officials have been harmed whenever they trusted the United States during the past 60 years. Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezai claimed the United States has “stonewalled” negotiations with the P5+1 in remarks to Fars News Agency in February.
            The next round of negotiations is unlikely to produce a breakthrough in this atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and festering wounds. Negotiators from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States—the so-called P5+1—are scheduled to discuss the nuclear issue with their Iranian counterparts in Kazakhstan on February 26.
            Iran and the United States need to leave their old resentments and suspicions behind to move forward. On the nuclear issue, both sides have painted themselves into rhetorical corners. Officials frame the conversation in terms of one side’s rights and the other’s obligations. There is little room for progress as long as the two sides confine their discussions to this difficult issue.
            Neither side can afford to make concessions that the other could accept. The United States cannot backtrack on sanctions and Iran cannot suspend uranium enrichment. Simply put, the Iranians want what the Americans cannot give them.  
John Limbert was appointed Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2006 after 33 years of service with the State Department. The ambassador briefly returned to the State Department and served as deputy assistant secretary for Iran from November 2009 through July 2010. In 1979, he was posted at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and was captured along with 51 other Americans. They were held hostage for 444 days.
Photo Credit: The New York Times
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Report: Iran Nuke May Not Trigger Arms Race

            Saudi Arabia would probably not rush to acquire a nuclear weapon if Iran builds one, according to a new report by the Center for a New American Security. It is widely assumed that Riyadh would rush to develop its own bomb or acquire weapons from Pakistan. But the report argues that “risks of the worst-case Saudi proliferation scenarios are lower than many contend.” By pursuing nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would risk becoming a target of international sanctions and rupturing its strategic ties with the United States. Riyadh is more likely to bolster its conventional defenses and rely on the United States for its defense. The following are excerpts from the report, followed by a link to the full text at the end.

            Conventional wisdom holds that the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an inevitable proliferation cascade across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia the prime candidate to follow Iran into the nuclear club. It is widely believed that the Kingdom would be hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons; if Saudi Arabia proved unable to build the bomb itself, it would acquire nuclear weapons or a nuclear umbrella from Pakistan.
            On all these counts, the conventional wisdom is probably wrong. Throughout the nuclear age, nuclear restraint has been the norm not the exception, and the Kingdom is not likely to buck this historical pattern. The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb, but significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. In any case, they lack the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Nor is Saudi Arabia likely to illicitly acquire operational nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Despite rumors of a clandestine nuclear deal, there are profound disincentives for Riyadh to acquire a bomb from Islamabad – and considerable, though typically ignored, reasons for Pakistan to avoid an illicit transfer. Instead, Saudi Arabia would likely pursue a more aggressive version of its current conventional defense and civilian nuclear hedging strategy while seeking out an external nuclear security guarantee from either Pakistan or the United States. And ultimately, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely prove more feasible and attractive to the Saudis than a Pakistani alternative.
            Although this is the most likely outcome, it is neither inevitable nor a reason to be complacent about the regional consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran. The risks of the worst-case Saudi proliferation scenarios are lower than many contend, but they are not zero. Even a small risk of a poly-nuclear Middle East should be avoided. Moreover, the most likely means of preventing a future Saudi bomb involve external nuclear guarantees that are themselves costly and undesirable in many respects. For these reasons, Washington should continue to prioritize preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even while taking steps to mitigate the worst outcomes
if prevention fails.
Click here for the full text. 

U.S. Poll: 83 Percent See Iran as Top Threat

            About 83 percent of Americans ranked Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions as the greatest threats to U.S. interests, according to a new poll by Gallup. The development of nuclear weapons by the two nations tied for the top spot on a list of nine potential threats.
            Democrats and Republicans largely shared their concern about  North Korea. But 12 percent more Republicans than Democrats viewed Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as a critical threat. The most significant partisan split was on Islamic fundamentalism. About 70 percent of Republicans viewed it as a critical threat, while only 46 of Democrats did. The following are excerpts from the survey, with a link to the full report at the end.  

This year's poll marked the first time Gallup asked about North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons specifically. In 2010 Gallup asked about the two countries' "military power," and found 61% rating each as a critical threat to the United States, second only to international terrorism. In 2004, the "spread of weapons of mass destruction to unfriendly powers" ranked second only to terrorism. Thus, Americans have previously seen North Korea and Iran, and nuclear weapons in general, as serious threats to the U.S….
Americans' assessments of North Korean nuclear ambitions as a critical threat to the United States vary little by subgroup, including by party identification. However, that is not the case for most of the other international matters, including Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say most of the matters are critical threats. The greatest party differences are in regard to Islamic fundamentalism, viewed as a threat by 70% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats...

Khamenei: Iran Not Seeking Nuclear Weapons

            On February 16, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed Iran has no intention to build nuclear weapons. But he warned that if Tehran decided to build them, the United States could not stop it.
            The Supreme Leader called Washington hypocritical on nuclear proliferation, human rights and democracy promotion. Diplomatic pressure and sanctions contradict U.S. overtures for direct negotiations, he told thousands at a rally in Tabriz.
            But Khamenei suggested that the two sides could negotiate if the United States acts and speaks “reasonably” on the nuclear issue. He stipulated that Iran will not relinquish its right to enrich uranium and produce nuclear energy.
            In his speech, the Supreme Leader condemned recent infighting between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the heads of Iran’s legislative and judiciary branches. Ahmadinejad raised allegations of corruption against Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and Head of the Judiciary Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani. Khamenei called the accusation an “immoral act” that went against Islamic law. He also noted that Ali Larijani’s responses were “excessive.”
            Khamenei told government officials to focus on the “common enemy” and solving economic republics instead of arguing with each other. The following are excerpts from the Supreme Leader’s speech.

The United States
            "The Americans expect the others to give in to their unreasonable demands and their bullying, as a number of people have given in to their demands. But the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic do not give in because they have the ability to reason, and they have power and authority…"
            "They [Americans] claim that they are committed to human rights and they have raised the flag of human rights in the world. But, in practice, they inflict the most serious harm to human rights and they hurl the biggest insult at human rights by creating disasters such as the ones in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and the slaughter of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan…"
            "Based on this claim [to combat nuclear proliferation], the Americans attacked Iraq 11 years ago. But it became clear that this claim was false in essence… Despite this claim, American politicians support the evil Zionist regime which is equipped with dangerous nuclear weapons…"
            "On the one hand, they make this claim [to support democracy] and on the other hand, they constantly confront Iran which has the most genuine democracy in the region… The Americans claim to support democracy while they support countries in the region which do not know the first thing about democracy, and in which the people have not seen ballot boxes even once..."
            "This claim [to be prepared to negotiate] is made while the Americans say inappropriate and false things about Iran and they resort to sanctions and pressures in order to confront the Iranian nation…"
            "Efforts to violate the rights of the Iranian nation are a clear example of the irrationality of the Americans. Therefore, one cannot use logic when he speaks to the irrational and thuggish side..."
            "During the past 34 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has clearly understood - through its involvement in different global issues - who its opposing side is, how he behaves and how it should be confronted..."
            "The global media network either does not reflect our statements or it reflects them in an incomplete or distorted way…"
            "They [Americans] want to show Muslim nations - which have just gained strength in the region - that the Islamic Republic of Iran came to the negotiating table despite its intense determination and resistance. Therefore, these nations have no options except for surrendering…"
            "During the past 15 years, the Americans requested Iran to negotiate with them two or three times, stressing that negotiations are very necessary, urgent and vital. One or two executive officials went and negotiated with them. But as soon as they had no response to Iran's reasonable statements, they broke off negotiations. And by using their global media networks, they pretended that Iran had broken off the negotiations…"
            "Contrary to American politicians, the Islamic Republic and the people of Iran are reasonable. Therefore, if they see that the other side speaks reasonably, they will respond appropriately…"
            "If such a thing happens and if the Americans show, in words and actions, that they are not irrational, then they will see that the Islamic Republic and the people of Iran are well-wishing, reasonable and cooperative..."
            "The only way to establish relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran is this and if such a thing happens, the American government will receive an appropriate response."
Sanctions and the Economy
            "Since a few months ago, they have imposed sanctions which were claimed to be crippling and they even imposed a new round of sanctions just a few days before the 22nd of Bahman. They did these in order to break the will of the people, but the Iranian nation responded by participating in the rallies on the 22nd of Bahman more enthusiastically than previous years…"
            "They [Americans] naively imagine that our people are exhausted by the sanctions, and when they hear about this promise, they become eager to negotiate with America and they pressure the officials of the country…"
            "In fact, this promise is one of the same deceptive statements of the Americans and it shows that they are not after genuine and fair negotiations. Rather, that they are pursuing the goal of making the Iranian nation surrender. If the Iranian people had wanted to surrender to the Americans, they would not have carried out a revolution…"
            "The aim of the sanctions is, as they have repeatedly said, to exhaust the Iranian nation and to make it separate from the Islamic Republic. Therefore, even if negotiations are conducted but our people stay present on the scene and stand up for their rights, sanctions will continue…"
            "The Americans believe that the Islamic Republic relies on the people and if they separate the people from the Islamic Republic with sanctions, the power to resist will be taken away from the Islamic Republic. The first part of this statement, that the Islamic Republic is dependent on the masses of the people, is accurate. But the second part, that pressures and sanctions will bring the people to their knees and will separate them from the Islamic Republic, is completely false and it is based on misapprehension…"
            "Of course, the Iranian nation is looking for blossoming [economic growth], progress and complete prosperity. But, it does not want to achieve this goal by being humiliated. Rather, it wants to pursue this goal with wisdom, determination and courage. It wants to achieve this goal by relying on its own resources, particularly by relying on the talented youth of Iran…"
            "Sanctions bother people. But there are two ways to approach sanctions: either people should surrender and show repentance before global bullies like weak nations. Or, like the brave people of Iran, they should increase their capabilities, rely on their own capacities and pass through the danger zone with dignity and strength…"
            "Undoubtedly, the people of Iran have chosen the second way and they will pursue it. By Allah's favor, they will turn sanctions into an opportunity for growth and blossoming…"
            "The people, particularly the underprivileged classes, truly feel the hardships. But they do not separate themselves from the Islamic Republic because they know that the Islamic Republic and the dear Islam are the powerful hands which can solve the problems."
Nuclear Program
            "If Iran had decided to build nuclear weapons, America would not have been able to stop the Iranian nation in any way..."
            "The Islamic Republic of Iran has not decided to build nuclear weapons and this decision is not because of America's concern. Rather, this decision is based on the belief that building nuclear weapons is a crime against humanity. Besides stressing that they should not be produced, it demands that the existing nuclear weapons be wiped out…"
            "The American's claim that Iran is building nuclear weapons is deceptive talk..."
            "On the nuclear issue of Iran, the argument is not about nuclear weapons. Rather, they want to deny Iran its natural and absolute right to enrich uranium and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Of course, they will not succeed in preventing the Iranian nation and our nation will fulfill its objective which is based on its absolute right…"
            "Of course, since many years ago, those who sought domination have tried to drag Iran to the negotiating table and make it deal with them in order to make Muslim nations hopeless. Now, they are pursuing the same goal by publicizing the idea of non-political negotiations. But the Islamic Republic of Iran understands what their goals are by keeping its eyes open and it responds according to these goals…"
            "By adopting the same irrational viewpoint, they say in their propaganda that they should directly negotiate with Iran in order to make it stop producing nuclear energy and satisfy it with enriched uranium. But, if they had wanted to start genuine and reasonable negotiations, they should have said, let us negotiate so that Iran can give its own reasons and so that issues will be examined in a fair way..."
            "This kind of negotiation does not serve any purpose. It will not reach any results. Even if Iran accepts to negotiate and even if the officials sit and negotiate with the Americans, what kind of negotiation is this when their goal is this [making Iran surrender and making Muslim nations hopeless]?"
Domestic Infighting
            "This bad and inappropriate event upset me for two reasons. The first is the fact that the event itself happened and the second is the fact that the people are unhappy about this issue…"
            "Unfortunately, in this event the head of a certain branch made an accusation against the other two branches - that is to say, the Parliament and the judiciary branch - on the basis of an unproven allegation which had not even been considered by the court. This course of action was bad, wrong and inappropriate. It was against Sharia and the law and it was an immoral act..."
            "This behavior violated the political rights of the people because living in peace and in psychological and moral security is one of the basic rights of the people…"
            "For the time being, I offer a piece of advice. This behavior is not appropriate for the Islamic Republic…"
            "Questioning should serve a certain purpose. What is the purpose of questioning a minister - a few months before the end of this administration's term - over an issue which is not related to the minister?"
            "Inside the Parliament, a number of people said inappropriate things. This course of action was also wrong..."
            "The things which the honorable Speaker of the Parliament said in his own defense were excessive. It was not necessary to do that… Neither that accusation, that behavior nor that questioning was appropriate..."
            "We are all brothers. When there is a common enemy ahead of us and when we see plots, what should we do?"
            "I will help them. But this kind of behavior is not in line with the oaths they take and with the promises they make. The officials should see the greatness of the people and they should behave in a way which the people deserve..."
            "The executive officials and the Parliament should focus all their efforts on solving the economic problems of the people and the country because as I said a few years ago, the enemy has focused his plots and plans on economic issues…"
            "A few years ago, I wrote a letter to the heads of the three branches of government about combating economic corruption. They repeatedly speak about economic corruption. But this problem is not solved by speaking about it. Rather, it requires combating in practice. What was done in practice? What did you do in practice? These issues make one distressed…"
            "Piety, piety, piety! We expect the officials to focus all their efforts on solving the problems of the people by exercising patience and by suppressing unrestrained emotions and by taking the issues of the country into consideration. Now that the enemies have increased their hostility, the officials should increase their friendships…"
            "By Allah's favor, this benevolent piece of advice will draw the attention of the officials, particularly high-ranking officials and they will act on it…"
            "My complaints against a number of officials should not make some people shout slogans against such and such people. I am against this course of action..."
            "A group of people called another group of people anti-wilayat and anti-wisdom and they shout slogans against them such as the event which recently happened in Qom. This is a wrong and I am completely against such moves. Before this, an event similar to this one happened at Imam Khomeini's holy shrine and I asked the officials to prevent these things…"
            "Those who shout such slogans - if they are really religious - should know that these moves harm the country and they are against Sharia. If they do not pay any attention to these statements, then they should be treated in a different way…"
            "By Allah's favor, the future of the wise people of Iran will be very bright. There are bright prospects for us. We should take care of ourselves."

Democrats Propose Posting U.S. Diplomat in Iran

            On February 15, Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced legislation that would reestablish a new diplomatic envoy to Iran. The high level envoy would be responsible for pursuing direct, sustained, bilateral and multilateral negotiations with Tehran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) said the United States must revise its no contact policy and “use all diplomatic tools available.” The following is a press release from her office.

            Today, Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced the “Prevent Iran from Acquiring Nuclear Weapons and Stop War Through Diplomacy Act,” which would create a high level Special Envoy to Iran. The act pushes diplomacy as a vital route to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and directs the President to appoint a Special Envoy to pursue direct, sustained, bilateral and multilateral negotiations with the Government of Iran in order to prevent war, and support human rights. 
            “The darkening clouds surrounding Iran’s nuclear program are troubling. We must use all diplomatic tools available, including engaging in direct bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.  To do that, we must lift the ‘no contact policy and begin negotiations,” Congresswoman Lee said.
            The bill calls for eliminating the State Department’s ‘no contact’ policy that prevents State Department officers and employees from making any direct contact with Iranian counterparts. The bill outlines measures to pursue opportunities to build mutual trust and to foster sustained negotiations in good faith with Iran.
            Original cosponsors include Representatives Earl Blumenauer, John Conyers, John Dingell, Keith Ellison, Rush Holt, Hank Johnson, James McGovern, Jim Moran, Betty McCollum, and Bobby Rush.

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