The horse trade seemed straightforward from the start. Iran proves to the satisfaction of the U.S. and its European allies that it could not quickly build an atom bomb should Tehran choose to break out of international safeguards. In return, the West turns off the economic sanctions that are crippling Iran's economy. What could be so difficult about that?
The big difficulty is built in. The Americans - long portrayed in Iran as the Great Satan - have set the rules by which the Iranians must play, and these rules differ dramatically from those that govern their regional frenemies and rivals. Pakistan, India, and Israel all have nuclear arsenals, which Washington and its European allies currently accept. India and Israel refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and do not permit regular inspections and continuous monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). No problem for the allies, who have singled out Iran for crippling economic sanctions and have threatened to go to war to stop it from ever getting the capability to build even a single atomic bomb.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader and top man, appears to have accepted this neo-imperial reality, at least for now. Khamenei calls this "historic flexibility" and sees no better way to remove sanctions and the threat of a costly war his country would lose. To make it more palatable, his salesmen - president Hassan Rouhani and the razor-sharp foreign minister Javed Zarif - talk about Iran's self-interest in giving the world confidence that it will remain free of nuclear weapons. Khamenei also appears to have decided that breaking out of Iran's diplomatic isolation is more in his country's national interest than having the capability to build a nuclear weapon, whose production, stockpiling, and use he has called forbidden by Islam. He has said this many times, most famously in his fatwa of 2005, which he could no doubt find a way to countermand if he wanted to.
One other thing to remember about Khamenei. He knows Western culture, with an understanding that often appears less Islamic than classically anti-imperialist. This comes through when he lets the world know that he doubts that the Great Satan can change sufficiently to make a nuclear deal possible.
Though I abhor the Ayatollah's theocratic politics, I share his doubts. I also have to wonder how long he and his compatriots will allow themselves to accept the devil's dictates. The answer, I suspect, depends on how quickly Iranians see an end to the sanctions and a material improvement in their standard of living. This is why the negotiators have no time to lose.
For the next few weeks, maybe even months, Iranians will hear only an inconsistent mix of words. In his U.N. speech, President Obama apologized for the coup, announced that he was no longer seeking regime change, referred respectfully to Khamenei's anti-nuclear fatwa, and inched away from saying that "all options are on the table." But caught up in their imperial mindset, Obama and members of his team continue to remind the Iranians who's on top, which is stupid and counter-productive at the start of negotiations that could become a smaller replay of Richard Nixon's opening to China.
On the other side, the Iranians themselves have given the world reason to be suspicious of their nuclear program. The suspicions go back to at least 2002, when the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) - an Iranian opposition group that the U.S. State Department had officially labeled as terrorists - identified two nuclear sites that Tehran had been building in secret. Satellite surveillance confirmed their claims. One site, at Arak, was for a heavy-water reactor that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The other, near Natanz, was an underground plant for enriching uranium. Western intelligence agency then discovered the clandestine construction of another enrichment facility some 70 meters underground in a hardened bunker at Fordo, near the holy city of QOM.
The IAEA accused the Iranians of failing to notify it when they began construction of these facilities. The Iranians insisted - and still do - that under the terms of their safeguards agreement, they did not have to notify the IAEA about any facility until 180 days before it went into production. Legally, the Iranians could well be right. But politically they lost the game, as Europe, the U.S. Congress, the White House, and the U.N. Security Council all imposed economic sanctions.
At the same time, Western spymasters decided that Iran had begun research on how to turn their enriched uranium or plutonium into nuclear weapons. Their findings, right or wrong, directly challenge declarations by both Rouhani and Khamenei that Iran has never pursued nuclear weapons. "If President Rouhani wants the world to believe Iran will not build nuclear weapons in the future," write former weapons inspector David Albright and his colleague Christina Walrond, "the Iranian government should reconsider its blanket denials of ever seeking nuclear weapons in the past."
This is the dominant attitude in Washington, which adds to doubts that Obama can deliver an end to sanctions even if the Iranians prove they have given up any nuclear weapons capability. Only Congress can kill the toughest sanctions, even as they now consider a new round of even harsher sanctions. This is where the neo-cons, the IsraeliAmerican Public Affairs Committee, and other friends of Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyabu will fight hardest to block any détente with Iran, making war all too likely.
Can Obama win this battle? Strangely enough, he can, but - irony of ironies - he can only do it with a massive outpouring of public protest to Congress even larger than the one that stopped him from sending his Tomahawk missiles into Syria. Hopefully, the doubting Ayatollah Khamenei will stay his present course and we can begin to change the Great Satan for good.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."
Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. 'The Americans - long portrayed in Iran as the Great Satan - have set the rules by which the Iranians must play, and these rules differ dramatically from those that govern their regional frenemies and rivals.' Steve Weissman, RSN...