Prospects for U.S.-Iran Diplomacy

August 15, 2011

Geoffrey Kemp

  • What are the prospects for progress this year in diplomatic efforts?
There is little chance for a major breakthrough in negotiations with Iran in 2011, or for that matter 2012.  Three major obstacles will prevent this.
First, the political crisis in Iran itself, which suggests a serious struggle for power between the parliamentary conservatives and the president's office and the parallel struggle between the president and the supreme leader. 
Second, the United States will be entering an election cycle.  The Republican candidates throughout the fall of 2011 and into the early months of 2012 will, with the exception of Ron Paul, be strongly opposed to any concessions to Iran.  In fact, they are likely to put great pressure on President Obama to do more to confront the regime, including sanctions, isolation, and rhetoric about a military strike, (although realistically, a military strike at a time of economic crisis is a highly unlikely contingency). 
The third constraint is that the regional dynamics are so volatile that any tentative agreement between the United States and Iran will be held hostage to what is happening in key countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and Syria.  For instance, if the Assad regime in Syria continues to lose its grip, this is bad news for Iran and Hezbollah.  Under such circumstances, the United States will cheer on the anti-Assad forces.  On the other hand, if there were a major rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, it could strengthen the case for a U.S.-Iranian understanding, provided that this was supported by Israel.  And here Israel's own internal divisions about Iran must be taken into account.
  • How will heightened sanctions against Iran, both economic and human rights, affect future negotiations?
Absent any military confrontation, sanctions will be the route that the United States and its key allies in Europe will continue to pursue.  The effect of sanctions has been significant, particularly in limiting Iran's capability to attract money for its energy development. 
But the impact of heightened sanctions will also depend on the overall global economic climate.  If the world enters a second round of global recession, oil prices will probably fall.  This will put greater pressure on the Iranian regime, given the importance of oil revenues to provide a cushion for subsidies for Iran's lower classes.  Under these circumstances, new sanctions will have troubling implications for the regime. 
However, even sanctions that hurt the Iranian economy are unlikely to slow its nuclear program.  Countries much poorer than Iran-such as Pakistan and China-became fully-fledged nuclear weapons states with fewer resources than Iran.

Since the Arab Awakening, human rights have become a much more transparent issue throughout the Muslim world.  Given what has happened in its neighborhood, Iran is unlikely to avoid further scrutiny of its own human rights record.  This an issue on which both U.S. political parties and many Europeans agree should be strongly emphasized.  Any suggestion that there could be a grand bargain with Iran that did not take into account human rights is no longer realistic.

Read Geoffrey Kemp's chapter on Iran and the Reagan presidency in "The Iran Primer"

Geoffrey Kemp, the director of Center for the National Interests' regional strategic programs, served on the National Security Council during the first Reagan administration. His latest book is, “The East Moves West: India, China, and Asia’s Growing Presence in the Middle East.”