The calculus in Tehran must be: which is more of a threat to the clerical regime? Signing an interim deal with America, or rejecting it? The balance must be to sign.
History shows Tehran will compromise ... occasionally
What would Ruhollah Khomeini have said? As the negotiations in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear programme reach a decision point, it is worth looking at how flexible the late revolutionary leader would be if he were alive today. Behind his austere and forbidding visage, he accepted the need for compromise – in some circumstances.
His biggest compromise was the 1988 decision to accept a ceasefire in the eight-year war with Iraq, thus abandoning his goal of deposing Saddam Hussein, a decision he said was “worse than drinking poison”. He let himself be convinced by government and military officials who argued that the cost of pursuing the war to depose Saddam threatened the survival of the clerical regime. In the end, it was a wiser decision than he could have known – George W Bush unwittingly completed Iran’s work 15 years later.
A less grand example is Khomeini’s rescue of Iran’s caviar industry. The sturgeon, whose eggs constitute the delicacy, is considered unclean for consumption by some strands of Shia Muslim law, as it has no scales like a normal fish.
After the Islamic revolution, all the jobs the caviar industry provided were under threat, but Khomeini accepted that the sturgeon had a few scales on the tail, enough for it to be declared halal.
On the issue of relations with America, the record is not so clear. But even Khomeini accepted that there would come a time to normalise relations.
During the heat of the hostage crisis when the US embassy staff were detained in their Tehran embassy, Khomeini declared that Iran “must pursue its decisive struggles until the end of all its political, military, economic and cultural dependence on America, this ruthless world-devourer”. Then, and only then, he said, “we will establish our very ordinary relations with America, just as with other countries”.
Khomeini’s compromises were always encased in a shield of threats. This one was no exception. He exhorted the Iranian people to topple any government official “who is inclined to compromise with the East or the West”. This message of no compromise, which is quoted in All Fall Down, by Gary Sick, a US official at the time of the hostage crisis, continues to this day, accompanied by regular chants of “Death to America”.
Strictly speaking, the Geneva negotiations are not between Iran and the US. They are between Iran and six of the world’s leading powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, the so-called P5+1.
In practice, however, this is the continuation of the old US-Iranian stand-off. If the negotiations fail, it will be up to the US to decide whether to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities or not. Neither France, Britain, Russia, China nor Germany are going to launch a bombing campaign against Iran. And nor is Israel capable on its own.
The issue then is whether, in Khomeini’s words, Iran has ended its “dependence” on the US and is capable of doing a deal without the stain of compromise.
In one sense neither Iran nor any other country – with the possible exception of North Korea – can survive totally independent of the US. Since the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency, and no bank in the world wants to be excluded from the US banking system, the financial sanctions imposed on Iran have wrought havoc on the economy. That is the way the global economy works today.
But there is another way of looking at the issue. Hossein Mousavian, former spokesman for the Iranian nuclear negotiating team, has written that it is not sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table with a smile and a warm handshake. Two things have changed: the popular mandate that Hassan Rouhani has for a rapprochement with the US, the EU and regional powers, and the fact that the Obama administration has made a major concession. Instead of demanding that Iran cease all uranium enrichment, Washington is now drawing its red line at Iranian capacity to build a nuclear weapon.
Mr Mousavian is not a disinterested party. But still his argument shows how it would be possible for the Iranian leadership to show that they have got the better of the US on a matter of principle, that it cannot be banned from enriching nuclear fuel.
In this argument Mr Mousavian has an unlikely ally in Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who is lobbying all parties from Washington to Moscow not to proceed with the interim agreement as it is currently understood. That is, Iran would stop stockpiling the highly fissile uranium isotopes suitable for nuclear weapons, but would be allowed to continue to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy programme. In Mr Netanyahu’s view, the US is being suckered by Iran and should be insisting on a “full freeze” of all the nuclear programme. If Israel is against this deal, the Iranian leadership might argue, how can it be bad for Iran?
The “full freeze” option might indeed be preferred by Washington, the Europeans and the regional powers in the Middle East. Unfortunately, that demand has been on the table for a decade, and resulted only in Iran getting closer every year to the nuclear weapons threshold. Realistically, it is time to try something else.
This is not to say that a deal is in the bag. There are big obstacles: the US Congress, egged on by Mr Netanyahu, could torpedo the deal. There would be a backlash in Iran, with hardliners unwilling to let foreign eyes pry into their nuclear programme. More urgently, Iran is insisting on the affirmation of its “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, a right which the US does not accept is recognised in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This point may have to be finessed in an interim agreement.
The calculus in Tehran must be: which is more of a threat to the clerical regime? Signing an interim deal with America, or rejecting it? The balance must be to sign, and the grounds for defending the decision are already in place.