There's been so much talk about how a dialogue might be opened between the United States and Iran (what are the conditions for a "respectful" exchange, who has to apologize to whom for what and so on) that an essential point has been missed. Getting American and Iranian envoys to the table is going to be the easy part. Why? Because the optimal outcome of any talks between Washington and Tehran for one side is completely anathema to the other.
For the United States, success would be having Iran foreswear all involvement in any aspect of nuclear power, formally recognizing the state of Israel and ceasing all of its support for parties, militias and terrorist groups, especially in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. From Tehran's perspective, a deal where the United States acquiesced to its nuclear program-combined with a U.S. withdrawal from the region-would be the best case scenario.
So, unless there is some radical change in the status quo, any agreement between the two sides would be a series of compromises. Sounds easy on paper, but the pitfalls are no less real. Let's examine some of them.
On the nuclear issue, the middle ground is the likely continuation of a purely civilian program for energy generation, with safeguards in place on those areas where there are military implications. But this still leaves a number of contentious issues. Does Iran get to build and use the infrastructure needed for the entire fuel cycle, or do elements have to exist beyond Iran (an international enrichment center, for instance)? What sort of intrusive inspections would be in place to guarantee against the possibility of diversion? And a nagging worry from the U.S. side would be that there was still a secret military program that had gone undetected.
A major sticking point on "support for terrorism," of course, is that from the Iranian perspective Hezbollah is a legitimate Lebanese political movement and Hamas is a national-resistance organization. It is not likely that cutting these groups off is an act any Iranian government would contemplate. But is there a "middle ground"? Could the compromise be some sort of "nonlethal" aid-similar to what the United States was providing the contras? (And even "non-lethal" aid would still free up resources that could be used to purchase weaponry.) Another sticking point: what about private Iranian groups-and the Revolutionary Guards could easily spin off some of their corporate holdings into a nongovernmental trust-continuing to provide aid and assistance? Would any agreement only cover official, state-to-group aid?
Finally, we come to Israel. Overt recognition of Israel by Iran seems highly unlikely. But is there a "don't ask, don't tell" agnosticism that would suffice to meet U.S. conditions? Say, of the Saudi variety? The "we know you are here, but we won't talk directly to you" approach? Certainly, we should have no illusions that Mohammad Khatami, should he be elected to the Iranian presidency this summer, would turn out to be another Anwar Sadat.
So even if talks get started, and even if the general outlines of a settlement appear clear, the devil will indeed be in the details. So perhaps it is best to get quiet talks started now-and to get some test balloons floated in both capitals that can address the tolerance of either side to some of these compromises.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.