Paul Pillar

Which, and Whose, Concrete Actions?

It certainly was a whirlwind week for Iranian-U.S. relations. A very good week, too, for anyone interested in the peaceful resolution of differences between the United States and Iran—and anyone genuinely interested in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon, a goal achievable with assurance only through the peaceful resolution of differences. At a gathering at a New York hotel at which President Rouhani spoke on Thursday, the mood among the many people in the audience who have those interests was bordering on euphoric—there were many expressions of optimism and references to a sea change in relations. That event climaxed when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who strode into the room late in the session, came to the podium to give an upbeat report on the discussions he had just concluded with Secretary of State Kerry and the other P5+1 foreign ministers. Then the next day, as the climax of the entire week, was the presidential phone conversation, which has repeatedly been described by the adjective “historic.”

All well and good, but with the week of euphoria over, any prospects for progress toward an agreement about the Iranian nuclear program face two big impediments. First, of course, are the forces that have opposed all along any agreement between the United States and Iran, will continue to oppose any agreement, and will see the setback they suffered this past week as a reason to try harder to step up their game. Those forces are led by Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and assisted, as Daniel Levy summarizes the line-up, by “American hawks and neoconservatives, Republicans who will oppose Obama on anything, and some Democrats with a more Israel-centric bent.” As Levy further notes, the efforts of these forces “will be concentrated on escalating threats against Iran, increasing sanctions, and raising the bar to an impossibly high place on the terms of a nuclear deal. All this will serve—intentionally, one has to assume—to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran who are equally opposed to a deal.”

The other impediment grows partly out of the euphoria itself, which aids the aforementioned bar-raising and has set the stage for unreasonable standards being applied to Iranian actions over the next several months. We now have a situation somewhat akin to the game of expectations that is played during U.S. presidential primary seasons, in which high expectations are undesirable because subsequent performance is measured against the expectations rather than against some objective standard. When expectations are not met, momentum is lost and a campaign may falter. Expect to hear many comments over the next couple of months about how the Iranians have not met delivered on the expectations placed on them.

A frequent theme of comments already made during Rouhani's time in New York is that talk and tone and a friendly style are fine but what really matters are specific, concrete actions. Of course actions are what matters in the end, but most such comments do not specify exactly what actions we should expect Iran to take now. Moreover, and just as important, they do not specify what Iranian actions would be reasonable to expect in the context of actions that the United States and its P5+1 partners are, or are not, taking. If the expectation is for Tehran to make substantial unilateral concessions or changes in its nuclear activities with nothing in return, then we are dwelling in the same fantasy world of those in the West and Israel who do not want any agreement at all and make unmeetable demands to try to preclude one. If crippling sanctions have helped to bring about the change that has already taken place on the Iranian side—as promoters of still more sanctions are quick to argue—why would, and why should, Iran give up the store or give up anything without getting sanctions relief in return?

The actions that will matter the most will be proposals made at the negotiating table, with the P5+1 and in bilateral U.S.-Iranian negotiations. That necessarily means actions by both sides. Any reasonable objective observer looking at where the negotiations left off earlier this year would conclude that there needs to be at least as much action, and probably more, on the P5+1 side as on the Iranian side. The last proposal the P5+1 made would entail only minor sanctions relief (compared with the vast panoply of sanctions currently in place) in return for substantial restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities that get to the core of Western objectives. The Iranians are justified in viewing this as an offer of peanuts and a demand for meat.

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