Twenty-four years later, the advantages differ but the argument is the same. Iran’s international standing has emboldened the hardliners advising Khamenei. His stance toward the United States since 2003 has been based on a simple equation: “We won’t compromise as long as you threaten us.” Sanctions on Iranian oil and banks have hardened this doctrine. In a graduation ceremony at Imam Ali Military Academy last November, Khamenei made it clear: “We threaten in response to your threats.”
The View from Tehran
Sanctions are hurting Iran’s middle-class and private sector, but its overall economic health far exceeds Khomeini’s war-ridden economy of 1988. In 2011, Iran’s oil revenues stood at approximately $100 billion. Optimistic assessments of sanctions foresee cutting these revenues by 50 percent in 2012. However, Iran’s 2012 budget plans for roughly $57 billion in oil revenues and $85 per barrel. 20 percent of revenues are marked for saving, thereby basing Iran’s public budget on roughly $68 per barrel.
Despite repeated threats of crippling sanctions and military strikes, Iran’s concern remains low. Unprecedented regional instability, high oil prices combined with limited supply and a global financial crisis increase its ability to resist foreign pressure with the help of non-Western players.
Iranian hard-liners argue that these factors will ultimately force the United States to accept Iran’s nuclear program, abandon its desire for regime change and recognize Iran’s regional clout. More pragmatic-minded officials acknowledge these factors are in Iran’s favor but caution that Iran is repeating its 1982 mistake, when it should have maximized its gains and sought an earlier end to the war with Iraq before the tide turned. Khamenei’s response is telling: unlike 1982, there is no good offer on the table for Iran to consider.
This internal debate often goes unnoticed outside of Iran. However, it demonstrates an important principle: Khamenei is not opposed to negotiations, but he will not drink from the chalice of poison without a quid pro quo. For Khamenei, drinking from the chalice means reaching a deal under circumstances in which Iran gets little in return and invites more U.S. pressure. Khamenei is the final arbiter in Iran, but the notion that he is unwilling to negotiate runs contrary to history. He negotiates when his regime’s interests are addressed.
With a new round of negotiations forthcoming, Washington and Tehran will once again test if compromise is possible. Before talks commence, both sides will leak competing narratives to the media in an effort to maximize leverage. Various concepts and demands have already been floated: enrichment to the 5 percent and 20 percent level; sanctions relief; fuel swaps; accepting Iran’s right to enrich on its soil; Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa, the Fordo facility in Qom; and unprecedented safeguards and inspection requirements.
A Way Forward
There is no quick fix to the U.S.-Iranian standoff. Both mutual interests and points of divergence exist, and the only way to peacefully bridge the gap is through sustained negotiations over a period of months, rather than days or weeks. To that end, the United States and Iran should engage in a phased, multilevel diplomatic strategy over the next six months. It is through this long, difficult bargaining process that realism, hard truths and tough-minded recognition of interests will sharpen the choices of both sides at the table.
America’s starting point is clear: Closing Iran’s Fordo facility; halting Iranian enrichment at the 20 percent level, and removing Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium from the country. To defuse the crisis diplomatically, the United States will need to consider the political, economic and security incentives sought by Iran—and the protection of human rights sought by the Iranian people—that any negotiated solution would have to address.
This does not imply that concessions must be made to Iran on each of these three fronts. Only sustained diplomacy can determine whether it is in America's interest to address Iranian concerns. But if Iran's interests are not addressed in negotiations—and to date, they have not been—Khamenei will deem the process one-sided, it will fail without being executed in good faith and he will take comfort in another affirmation of his thesis on America.
Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council. Ali Reza Eshraghi is media and communication consultant at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a Rotary World Peace fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.