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TEHRAN, Iran — When the six-party talks with Iran began Monday, observers were looking to see if either side was actually serious this time around.
Many believe that both Iran and the United States are simply buying time. Iran is attempting to advance its nuclear program, while the United States is seeking definitive proof of a weapons program. With its announcement that it can now produce yellow cake uranium, Iran appears to be raising the stakes, while the United States hopes that its war of attrition — sanctions — will ultimately destabilize the Iranian regime.
It is quite possible that both sides are correct in their calculations. But without taking a much closer look at the domestic climate in Iran, important opportunities to cooperate on Iraq and Afghanistan in the short-term, and long-term trade development may be missed.
Iran is now mired in a series of internal crises — political, environmental and economic in nature — that make it difficult for its leaders to look beyond its own borders. Improved relations with the rest of the world would help alleviate some of that strain, even if it only came in the form of removing sanctions.
Dennis Ross, a top adviser on Iran for U.S. President Barack Obama, said the possibility of better relations is real.
“Iran has a chance now to benefit tremendously when it comes to technology, to science, to economics, financial areas, politically, in all these ways Iran can benefit," Ross said. "And I hope it takes the chance to do so, because if not, it will be squeezed further."
But the United States must also recognize the opportunity. This week’s talks could provide the break that is needed to begin re-building trust between Iran and much of the rest of the world. Unfortunately both the United States and Iran have proven quite adept at misinterpreting each other’s signals.
It is clear that Iran, and the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in particular, would benefit greatly from a deal on the nuclear issue. Improved relations with the United States appear to be what Ahmadinejad is angling for, according to analysts.
U.S. leaders need to recognize that and they need to avoid being antagonistic, which has been Obama’s primary strategy for dealing with Iran so far during his presidency.
U.S. policy toward Iran, in fact, is beginning to be viewed by average Iranians as not only extremely hypocritical and duplicitous — adjectives some Iranians might use to describe their own rulers — but also not-so-subtly hostile.
If anything, the effects inside Iran of the WikiLeaks scandal that has so rocked the diplomatic world have served to strengthen a longstanding Iranian narrative of victimization. Although there was nothing overtly new or revealing about the leaked cables, they provided a very satisfying reminder to supporters of the Islamic Republic that indeed everyone is out to get them — evidenced most famously by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s request that the United States “cut off the head of the snake.”
Furthermore, they provided evidence, at least as far as the Iranian leadership is concerned, that American officials have yet to try diplomacy with Iran, and ultimately believe it will fail.
The day after the cables were made public, Ahmadinejad held his first press conference in many months. Given the many domestic challenges he is now facing, it was not surprising that the president didn’t want to discuss the scandal.
In a session with reporters, broadcast live on Iranian state television, Ahmadinejad faced a barrage of questions that underscored the growing number of national crises all seemingly coming to a head at once.
He was asked several times about the cables and was very clear on his public position on them. “They’re so worthless,” he told the gathering, “I don’t even want to waste time talking about them.”
On the same day, two Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked in their cars on their way to work as university professors. One of them was killed and the other is convalescing, having suffered serious wounds. The president blamed foreign governments. “One can undoubtedly see the hands of the Zionist regime and Western governments in the assassination that unfortunately took place today,” Ahmadinejad said.
Most of the questions, though, came from domestic reporters regarding Iran’s economic woes, and this is really where the focus should be. Iran’s economy is in trouble, and this is not only because of recent sanctions — although they surely exacerbate the problem.
Long overdue subsidy reforms, without which the Iranian government spends an estimated $100 billion annually, have not been implemented. Officials continue to debate what the political impact and public response will be.
Ahmadinejad’s answers satisfied very few in the crowd and at one point he simply said that, “When they [the United States] say they have isolated Iran, it means that they themselves are isolated. And when they say Iran is economically weak, it means that it has been strengthened.”
Adding to his problems, Tehran and other major cities are facing an environmental crisis, with air pollution over the past month at such dangerously high levels that official holidays have been called on multiple occasions, which has cost the Iranian economy hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
With all of this at play, and both the American and Iranian leadership desperately needing to save face among their own publics, the table seems set for some sort of positive breakthrough. But that can only happen if both sides recognize the other’s vulnerability and agree that exploiting the other’s current political weaknesses for its own short-term gain is in no one’s best interest.