Can there ever be a compromise?

The relations between Iran and the US continue to deteriorate, inching closer to the danger zone. The conflict between these two states is multi-faceted. Competition over power and interests, clash of cultures, the factor of Israel, profound mistrust, perceptions and misperceptions, and last but not least, misanalysis of the situation by American experts are responsible for the current perilous state of affairs.

What is rare about this relationship is that the two states have been locked in a state of non-communication (or inconsistent and failing communications) for over thirty years. In other words, the two governments simply cannot or do not talk with each other. This condition was not seen even during the Cold-War between the US and its adversaries. The US not only had diplomatic, but also economic relations, with the communist bloc.

Surprisingly, experts pay no attention to this odd situation although it is obvious that in the absence of meaningful and enduring talks between Iran and the US, expecting “a negotiated solution,” as advocated by the US government, is not logical. And when there is no negotiation and no negotiated solution, only one thing can resolve the disputes—war.

Many maintain that Iran’s hostile stance toward Israel makes the formation of negotiations impossible. While Iran’s uncompromising position towards Israel may appear as an obstacle in the path of normalization of the relations between Iran and the US, this is not truly a barrier for opening direct dialogue and conducting negotiations. We know this because during the watches of all presidents, reconciliatory proposals by one or both countries have been made. This is a manifestation of the fact that the “will” for restoring and normalizing relations does exist on both sides, and that there is no factor of such weight and importance to stop the decision makers on both sides of thinking about reconciliation.

Two examples of such efforts are Iran’s 2003 offer for a grand bargain, which was rejected by the Bush administration, and the most recent of such proposals was president Obama’s call for a “new beginning” in March 2009, ostensibly a sharp departure from Israel’s position, which was refused by Iran’s Supreme Leader. Numerous attempts of this kind are documented in US-Iran relations since the Islamic revolution.

So the history of relations between Iran and the US during the last 34 years dictates that despite reconciliatory offers from both sides, there have only been ineffectual attempts by both states to communicate in a meaningful way. Normalization of relations may be far-fetched, not to mention that they could not even reduce or contain tensions. Two key factors have largely contributed to the formation and perpetuation of the state of non-communication between Iran and the US. One is profound, mutual mistrust and the other, unequal power.

Although the element of mistrust was present in US-China relations (as it also was in the relations between Soviets and Americans), when Nixon paid his historical visit to China and shook Mao’s hands in 1972, China knew that the US was no longer a threat to it. The balance of power and the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine was in effect. According to the MAD doctrine, neither side, once armed, has any rational incentive to initiate a conflict because it could effectively result in the complete annihilation of both, the attacker and the defender.

However, in Iran’s case, the regime constantly fears harm by the US, despite pretending conciliation. This fear, is rooted in a high level of mistrust, may be justified both historically and by some current events. Based on the New York Times revelations, we now know that while president Obama was stretching his hands to Iran in his 2009 televised message, he concurrently ordered the expedition of Stuxnet cyberattacks on Iran. Mistrust is also intensified by conspiracy theories which are inseparable part of the Iranian politics. According to Ahmad Ashraf, an Iranian sociologist, Iranians from all walks of life and all ideological orientations have relied on this “culture of conspiracy” as a basic mode of understanding politics.

Iran is not in a position to either stop or retaliate against American moves. Unequal powers, combined with extreme mistrust, have led Iran’s leadership to conclude that negotiations with the US would be humiliating since the US has the upper hand, and is dangerous because Americans are not trustworthy. Against the US toughening sanctions, Iran’s only weapon is to escalate and expand its nuclear program. This policy is adopted in the framework of the doctrine of “threat against threat,” chosen as Iran’s strategic approach last year. Ironically, this policy continually gives purpose to greater pressure and tougher sanctions by the US and its allies.

For better or worse, Iran will not bow to pressures. First, the Iranian leadership has constantly and heavily linked the nuclear program to the notion of “national pride.” Backing down on the nuclear issue would levy high political costs against the Iranian leadership. Second, Iran believes that making any concession would be the beginning of more pressure and demands for further concessions until the Islamic system collapses. According to Herbert Kelman, an international conflict expert, decision-makers of the weaker side of conflict “worry that…once they make certain concessions, they will find themselves on a slippery slope”.

The rationale behind sanctions is that the Iranian leadership is rational, and therefore, will react favorably to them. In support of this thesis, Mr. Obama maintains that the Iranian leaders are “self-interested,” and that “the decisions they’ve made over the past three decades, [indicate] that they care about the regime’s survival.” However, this proposition is only half of the truth. It is true that territory and governance is important for the states, but their “identity” is no less important and constantly impacts their decisions. In fact, states’ identity is the source of their preferences and interests. In the case of the Iranian leaders, they are rational but that rationality is heavily bounded by ideology.

Many compare the nuclear case to Iran’s acceptance of the UN Security Council Resolution 598 which demanded a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq. They reason that once the survival of Iran’s regime hit the danger zone, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolution leader, drank the “cup of poison” and retreated from his position of toppling Saddam. This comparison is flawed. When Ayatollah Khomeini accepted the ceasefire, Iran did not lose one centimeter of its territory. More importantly, the new revolutionary government had succeeded in silencing numerous opposition groups, and monopolizing power during the eight-year war. The retreat was about permitting Saddam to survive. It was not about retreating before a strategic enemy and a great power. The Iranian leadership firmly believes that once the sanctions bear fruit, Americans will use the same tactic over new issues such as “human rights” and “terrorism” until the regime is toppled.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 will either remain ineffectual, or any agreement will be shaky and unstable at best, for as long as the “real problem” (i.e., between the US and Iran) exists. Peace on the nuclear issue alone, while other cases of conflict remain unresolved, would be unstable. To conclude, the troubling question is this: “If the US does not change its policy of toughening and imposing paralyzing sanctions, and if Iran does not acquiesce to pressures while the two governments are locked in a state of non-communication, what scenarios are imaginable other than war?”

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