On Monday, Iranians celebrated the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, the point when the revolution took on a resolutely anti-American line that continues to this day. As in the past, there were crowds of thousands in the streets chanting “Down with the USA” and waving banners with the slogan, “Death to America”.
But seasoned observers noted that the commemoration was muted this year, in the run-up to the second round of talks aimed at reaching a compromise with Washington on Iran’s nuclear programme. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had warned hardliners not to undermine Iran’s negotiating team. Saeed Jalili, a previous nuclear negotiator considered a hardliner, appealed to the crowd for national unity at this time.
A series of posters mocking “American honesty” – portraying a US negotiator in a suit jacket and combat trousers and army boots – were taken down from street hoardings in Tehran on the grounds that they were unauthorised. The organisation that produced the posters struggled to keep up with the changing tone of Iranian politics, saying they had been ordered several months ago. The posters were not meant to indicate “opposition to the negotiations of Iranian statesmen with America”.
So an occasion when Iran usually displays its angry frown was tempered with the smile that the new president, Hassan Rouhani, has so successfully deployed around the world.
A smile costs nothing, and can be dismissed as valueless, but it is one of the key indicators of the political weather in Iran. As for the negotiations, they are shrouded in secrecy but one thing is clear. In the past the talks were shouting matches based on clear and openly declared positions, such as the level of nuclear enrichment that Iran’s interlocutors would permit. Now the US goal is expressed in the vaguest and fluffiest of language – “an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear programme from moving forward”. In public at least both sides are dialling back the finger-wagging.
There are two ways to look at this. The first is that America’s interest under President Barack Obama are for more closely aligned with Iran than at any time for a decade. Mr Obama does not want to go to war and bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, so he is keen for a negotiated compromise. In addition, he has a lot of business to conduct with Iran if the nuclear file was closed. He needs Iranian support to stabilise Afghanistan when US troops withdraw next year. Even more urgently, he needs to work with Iran to secure a political transition in Syria that keeps the jihadist factions out of Damascus.
Even at the best of times, the president of the United States does not necessarily get his way in Washington, and this is doubly true now when Republicans in Congress are keen to oppose the president in all his works. Congress would treat any request by the president to ease sanctions against Iran – a prerequisite for an agreement– with deep suspicion. Sanctions, the hardliners argue, are what brought Iran to the negotiating table and should be strengthened, not eased. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is a strong proponent of ratcheting up the pressure on Iran.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that Mr Obama secured a commitment from four pro-Israeli lobby groups to ease off pushing for more sanctions for a time – it is not clear how long – to allow the talks some space to bear fruit. This report casts Washington politics in an unflattering light and has been greeted with a flurry of denials and attempts to correct the record. But it is clear that the US administration feels pressure from Congress to ramp up the sanctions, and needs to achieve some quick result, even an interim agreement.
The second interpretation of the diplomatic dance is more cynical. It holds that Mr Rouhani’s smile is not a superficial detail, but part of the substance of Iran’s negotiating position. In this view, the nuclear talks are similar to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: both sides know a final peace agreement is all but impossible, so success in the negotiations requires diplomatic manoeuvring to force the other side to get the blame for the inevitable failure.
This makes a lot of sense for the Iranians. With his aggressive rhetoric, Mr Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, managed to unite the big powers into punishing Iran with sanctions. He came across as Dr Strangelove with added religiosity – exactly the wrong stance for a country that claims not to be developing a nuclear weapon.
If Mr Ahmadinejad’s frown got them into this mess, then perhaps Mr Rouhani’s smile can save them. So far Iran has done everything to exude sweet reasonableness and optimism about the chances of success. At the same time, its framing of the dispute – particularly the disputed claim that Iran has an “inalienable right to nuclear enrichment” – is gaining currency.
As Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, has argued, failure of the talks could still yield benefits for Tehran. “The sanctions regime and the international consensus to isolate Tehran might quickly disintegrate if talks fail and the blame falls on Washington (read Congress). In fact, the Iranians are counting on this.”
If a hawkish Congress is seen as responsible for the failure of the talks, then it will be possible to peel countries away from the various strands of the sanctions regime. The US sanctions – which are some of the most effective by excluding companies from the US banking system if they conduct oil transactions with Iran – will remain in place. But America would have lost the moral high ground.
Both interpretations are based on reality. There is no doubt that Mr Obama really does want a deal to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue but has to question whether Iran is ready for the necessary compromise. The Iranians would be right to factor in the anti-Obama bent of a dysfunctional Congress. So both sides are on their best behaviour – until they are not.