How the U.S. and Iran Keep Failing To Find a Peace They Both Want

A grand bargain would serve everyone, which is why both countries have tried to put aside tensions and strike a deal. So why are the U.S. and Iran perpetually stuck in confrontation?

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U.S. President Barack Obama, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami have all attempted to reach out across the hostile U.S.-Iran divide / Reuters

The 30-year-old U.S.-Iran enmity is no longer a phenomenon; it is an institution. For three decades, politicians and bureaucrats in both countries have made careers out of demonizing each other. Firebrands in Iran have won political points by adding an ideological dimension to an already rooted animosity. Shrewd politicians, in turn, have shamelessly used ideology to advance their political objec­tives. Neighboring states in the Persian Gulf and beyond have taken advantage of this estrangement, often kindling the flames of division.

Israel and some of its supporters in the United States, in particular, have feared that a thaw in U.S. relations with Iran would come at the expense of America's special friendship with the Jewish state.

But the strategic cost to the United States and Iran of this pro­longed feud has been staggering. Harming both and benefiting nei­ther, the U.S.-Iran estrangement has complicated Washington's efforts to advance the peace process between the Israelis and Palestin­ians in the 1990s, win the struggle against al-Qaeda, or defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and the insurgency in Iraq. Still, the strategic cost of this enmity has oftentimes been dwarfed by the domestic political cost to overcome it. In Washington, the political cost for attempting to resolve tensions with Iran has simply been too great and the political space too narrow to justify starting down a fraught and uncertain path to peace with Iran. Political divisions, in turn, have paralyzed Tehran at key intervals, with vying political factions not wishing to see their competitors define the outcome of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement or get credit for reducing tensions.

The hostility has been institutionalized because either too many forces on both sides calculate that they can better advance their own narrow interests by retaining the status quo, or the predictability of enmity is preferred to the unpredictability of peace making. Thus, over the years, this antipathy has survived -- and hardened -- because the cost of maintaining the status quo has not outweighed the risk of seeking peace -- until 2008, that is.

With the election of Barack Obama, the stars aligned for a radical shift in U.S.-Iran relations. Tensions between the United States and Iran had risen dramatically during the Bush administration, putting the two countries on the verge of war. While the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq put American troops on Iran's eastern and western borders, respectively, the defeat of the Taliban and the end of Saddam Hussein's reign also removed two of Iran's key regional rivals from the strategic chessboard. Freed from the burden of its long-standing enemies, Iran was now a fast-ascending power that astutely took advantage of America's inability to win the peace in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran's advancing nuclear program added more fuel to the fire. Increasingly, Iran's rise, combined with America's painful predicament in the region, rendered a continuation of the U.S.-Iran rift too costly. Iran and the United States were grav­itating toward a confrontation that neither could afford.

Meanwhile, the American public had turned against not only president George W. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and occupation of Iraq, but also the ideological foundation of Bush's worldview. Previously, Beltway hawks maintained that negotiations and compro­mise were not mere tools of diplomacy, but rather rewards that should be granted only to states that deserved an opportunity to talk to the United States. Inspired by this philosophy, Bush refused to engage with Iran during his entire presidency, even on issues of such importance as Iraq and Afghanistan (with the exception of episodic instances of brief diplomatic outreach for tactical purposes). More­over, the neoconservative philosophy, viewing the United States as the source of legitimacy at home and abroad, dictated that talking to the autocratic rulers in Tehran would help legitimize Iran's theo­cratic and repressive government. But while refusing engagement with Iran upheld a sense of ideological purity for the Bush White House, it did nothing to address the growing challenge that Iran posed to the United States in the region. During the Bush presidency, Iran amassed more than 8,000 centrifuges for its nuclear program while expanding its influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.

This reality was widely acknowledged in the United States to­ward the end of the Bush administration. In March 2006 Congress appointed a bipartisan Iraq Study Group to assess the Iraq war and to make policy recommendations. One of the group's key endorse­ments was direct U.S. dialogue with Iran over Iraq and the situation in the Middle East--a stark refutation of the Bush White House ideology. And in September 2008, only two months before the U.S. presidential elections, five former secretaries of state -- Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Henry A. Kissinger, and James A. Baker III -- called on the United States to talk to Iran.

Then-Senator Obama recognized that unprecedented political space had emerged for new foreign policy thinking. So rather than shying away from the issue of diplomacy with Iran, Obama took the unusual step of making engagement with U.S. adversaries a central part of his foreign policy platform during the 2008 presidential elec­tion--something that, under normal circumstances in Washington, would have been considered political suicide. In the televised presi­dential debates, Obama boldly declared that it was "critical" that we "talk to the Syrians and the Iranians," and that those saying that the United States "shouldn't be talking to them ignore our own history."

Finally, the persona of Barack Obama himself was an important factor. He was a most unlikely candidate--and the most difficult one for the Iranian leadership to dismiss or vilify. Born to a Kenyan Muslim father and a American Midwestern mother, Obama spent most of his childhood in Hawaii and, later, in Indonesia, after his mother was remarried to an Indonesian. Having been exposed to both the Muslim and Christian religions, having grown up in a Third World country shortly after it had won its independence from colo­nial powers, and having the middle name Hussein--the name of one of the most revered figures in Shia tradition--Obama simply did not fit the Iranian stereotype of American, "imperialist" leaders--arro­gant, ignorant, and incapable of empathizing with the grievances of Third World states against Western powers.

Clearly, Obama recognized the historic opportunity that lay be­fore him. Only twelve and a half minutes into his presidency, he sought to seize it by extending America's hand of friendship in the hope that Iran would unclench its fist.

A year and a half into his presidency, President Barack Obama was celebrating not the diplomatic victory he had been seeking, but rather the imposition of sanc­tions he had hoped to avoid. Despite extensive out­reach, clear strategic benefits, and an unprecedented opportunity for engagement, Obama found himself stuck in the same confrontational relationship with Iran as that of other American pres­idents before him. And, as many officials in his administration had suspected, while sanctions might have been politically imperative from a domestic standpoint and could make life more difficult for the Iranians, they were not a solution to the standoff with Iran. "While Iran's leaders are feeling the pressure, the sanctions have not yet produced a change in Iran's strategic thinking about its nuclear program," Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Robert Einhorn told an audience at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2011. Instead, under Obama's watch, the cycle of escalation and counterescalation continued with no sign of a solution in the offing.

While most of Obama's domestic critics opposed his pursuit of diplo­macy on the grounds that talking with Iran was useless and morally questionable, a few voices also disapproved of his engagement policy as being insincere and aimed only at paving the way for sanctions. Neither criticism is well grounded. Diplomacy was not only a strate­gic necessity, but also the least costly avenue to address the tensions with Iran. And rather than being a well-designed conspiracy, the president's vision for diplomacy was genuine, as was his initial out­reach. But faced with overwhelming resistance from Israel, Congress, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab allies, skeptics within his own admin­istration and, most importantly, the actions of the Iranian government itself, the president's vision and political space were continually com­promised. In the end, the diplomacy Obama pursued was only a shadow of the engagement he had envisioned.

Obama's vision for engagement met stiff resistance from the outset. The Iranians themselves, however, dealt the biggest blow to Obama. The election fraud and ensuing human rights violations strengthened the arguments of Obama's domestic critics and made the administration all the more reluctant to defend its engagement policy. These events also bolstered the critics of engagement within the administration who viewed the elec­tion fallout as vindication of their skepticism.

"You have the rigged elections of June 2009. Then the protests. And then, in a way, the moment was lost," David Miliband, then-foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, told me. The elections had a deep psychological impact on the administration. Though it stuck to its engagement policy and refused to come out in favor of the Green movement, its willingness to take bold steps on Iran essentially ended. Engagement started to become too risky and, with no immediate political benefits for the president domestically, the inclination was to revert to one's comfort zone. "When you don't know what's going on, and you don't feel like you have somebody you can communicate with on the other side of the table, you are going to revert back to what's safe," a State Department official explained. "And what's safe in the Iran context is demonization and just general negativity." By the time engagement finally could begin, in October 2009, Obama's room for maneuverability -- and his political will to fight for greater flexibility -- were almost nonexistent. He desperately needed a quick victory to create more time and space for diplomacy. But precisely because of his loss of maneuverability, he had little flexibility in negotiations and the discussions quickly turned into a "take-it-or-leave-it" proposi­tion -- the very approach that was doomed to fail.

In Vienna, the Iranians dealt a second blow to Obama by refus­ing to accept the Russian-American swap proposal without any revi­sions. Though administration officials recognized that the primary reason for Iran's refusal was paralysis caused by political infighting at home, the impact was the same: Obama had nothing to show for his outreach. His own party was revolting against him in Congress on this issue; many in his administration felt uneasy about the portrayal of the White House as insensitive to the plight of Iranian pro-democ­racy protesters defying the Islamic Republic's repression; and the Israeli government was reportedly turning to high-level Democratic donors to exert additional pressure on Obama to forsake diplomacy in order to save the Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections. Moreover, Iran's continued political paralysis made the potential for additional diplomacy unclear at best. Once the decision was made to activate the sanctions track, diplomacy had disappeared in all but name. That first became evident when Washington in­formed Tokyo that its efforts to mediate a solution were no longer welcome, and occurred again when Brazil and Turkey's successful bid to convince Tehran to agree to the Obama administration's terms for the fuel swap was brusquely rejected. Obama's open hand had turned into a clenched fist.

Throughout this period, despite the Iranian recognition of Obama's political dilemma at home, a combination of factors caused Tehran to refrain from helping create more space for engagement. On the one hand, doubts about Obama's intentions and abilities made an already risk-averse leadership in Tehran more disinclined to take a gamble for peace. "I don't think the Iranians quite knew what to make about the American outreach," Miliband said. "I think that it was such a change for them, that they didn't quite know how to handle it."

Even if the Iranians maintained the assumption that Obama genuinely wished to resolve the tensions between the two countries, they still doubted his ability to break with long-standing American policies on Iran in order to confront the forces of the status quo in Washington and beyond. Investing in an American president whose intentions and abilities were questionable was a tough sell in Tehran. The hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan called Obama "impotent" and asked rhetorically, "Who is wearing the trousers within the U.S. political hierarchy?" Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's insistence that Washington offer signs of real strategic change rather than just a change in tone was partly aimed at testing Obama's intentions and abilities for this very purpose. When I challenged one of Iran's nuclear negotiators on the Islamic Republic's deep skepticism of Obama and the unique oppor­tunities Tehran risked missing as a result, the official was unapolo­getic. "The U.S. should resolve its domestic political issues itself," he said. As time passed and Tehran increasingly perceived Obama as "no different from Bush in action," Iran's attitude hardened and the absence of action to help Obama turned into a desire to see him fail. Obama's opposition to war, it was said, was due not to a desire for peace but rather to America's lack of capability for war as a result of its engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a former Iranian diplomat who maintains close contact with the leadership in Tehran, the Iranians still "regarded U.S. engagement as another means to get Iran to surrender." And after the failure in Vienna, where the Iranians concluded that accepting the fuel swap would not end the demand for Iran to suspend its enrichment ac­tivities, the Iranian takeaway message was that America's position on Iran had not changed much.

"What had been a precondition under Bush -- the suspension of enrichment -- had become a postcondition under Obama," said Mohammad Khazaee, Iran's ambassador to the UN. But rather than engaging in deliberate deception, the Obama administration simply had not settled on a desired endgame with Iran, on the nuclear issue or otherwise. For the Obama White House, the destination of diplomacy was simply a function of the journey. Still, the lack of clarity on the endgame was not just a point of criticism by Iran or by the president's domestic opponents. Even senior Obama administration officials were unclear on the strategy and the endgame, as evidenced by the leaked three-page memo, signed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that warned of the

U.S. lack of a coherent, long-term plan to deal with Iran's steady progress toward a nuclear capability. The memo came to light in April 2010 but was penned in January of that year -- just as the U.S. was embarking on the sanctions track.

There is the question of whether the Iranian government actually desires a deal with the United States. A common school of thought in Washington states that enmity with America -- the "Great Satan" -- is one of the uncompromising pillars of the Islamic Re­public. As a result, Tehran cannot come to terms with Washington without risking an internal identity and legitimacy crisis. The state ideology of the regime requires enmity with the U.S., and without it the internal contradictions of the Islamic Republic would reach a breaking point. Iran's periodic reluctance to engage with the U.S. is grounded in this ideological rigidity rather than in internal divisions in Iran, mistrust of the U.S., or disinterest in the specific deals the U.S. has put on the table. The main obstacle to a diplomatic break­through is not the manner of the diplomacy or its extent or lack thereof, or the specifics of the deal, but rather the regime's DNA.

The calculations of the Iranian hard-liners are, however, not so mysterious and incomprehensible that analysts have to resort to ge­netics to make sense of them. Part of the reluctance of hard-liners in Iran to negotiate with the U.S. has been rooted not necessarily in these ideological factors but in the fear that any relationship with the U.S. would force Iran to adopt policies in the region that are aligned with those of Washington and, to a certain extent, Israel. Iran would lose its independence and, much like Egypt after the Camp David agreement, its bid for leadership in the region. Moreover, by aligning with the U.S., Iran would be forced to invest in the survival of pro-American Arab dictatorships rather than pursuing policies that would win it soft power on the Arab street. Because the Iranian hard-liners have calcu­lated that the Arab street will ultimately overthrow the monarchial and pro-American regimes in the region, Iran's long-term security would be best achieved by aligning itself with the populace. Consequently, agreeing to any engagement with Washington -- on its terms and de­signed to rehabilitate Iran as a compliant U.S. ally -- would contradict Iran's long-term security interests in the region.

Likely cementing the hard-liners' view of the U.S. as an increasingly irrelevant power inca­pable of adjusting to the new realities of the region are the continued decline of the U.S. in the Middle East, the Arab spring of 2011, and the downfall of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and beyond. Any realiza­tion that an opportunity was lost with Obama in 2009 probably has yet to sink in. "What happened is clearly proving what our officials including Supreme Leader said," Soltanieh said. "The Americans come sometimes with the good words but in practice they might have a knife to [stick] in your back."

Iran's suspicions and mistrust, whether justified or not, were paralyzing. What the Iranians failed to appreciate was that Obama's ability to drive the policy and "wear the pants" within the U.S. government was partly a function of how willing Iran was to take the same risk for peace that it had grown accustomed to taking for a continuation of the long-standing "no-war, no-peace" stalemate. In retrospect, once George W. Bush took office in 2001 and adopted a confrontational approach to Iran, reformists in former president Mohammad Khatami's circle came to regret their failure to recipro­cate President Bill Clinton's outreach. The unprecedented willing­ness of the Obama administration to reach out to Iran and embark on a cautious reconciliation process, even if inadequate, is unlikely to be re-created by any later U.S. administration for some time. Likewise, the opportunity Iran had with Obama in the first months of his presidency will likely not be fully appreciated by the decision makers in Tehran until much later.

Seeking to pin the failure on either side does not offer a better understanding of the complexity of the conflict. At times, both sides showed goodwill, but at other times both were overtaken by their suspicions and fears. Both sides miscalculated and made mistakes, and both sides felt that the other side was taking a smaller share of the risk for peacemaking. Both sides were interested at different times in some sort of a deal; the question was and remains whether they have been seeking the same deal. Only through sustained, persistent, and patient diplo­macy can that question be answered.

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Ultimately, the failure of diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran came down to insufficient political will and the atmosphere of mis­trust that granted neither side any margin for error. The proposals put on the table may have been flawed; at different points either side may have played for time or sought to delay talks; and goodwill measures may not have been reciprocated. But these phenomena do not make U.S.-Iran talks unique; they are common features in almost all negotiations. Talks that succeed do not do so because the pro­posals are flawless and because both sides play fair. Rather, they succeed because the many flaws associated with the talks are over­come by the political will to reach a solution.

The will for a diplomatic solution must be strong enough to overcome every last hurdle. In the case of the U.S. and Iran, diplo­macy was in effect abandoned at the first hurdle. And though the desire for diplomacy was genuine, the administration's lack of confi­dence in its chances of succeeding -- several high-level officials in the Obama administration told me separately that they did not believe diplomacy would work -- raises the question as to whether the White House would fully invest in a policy it believed would fail. Lack of political will also plagued the bureaucracy. After the June election in Iran, in particular, a combination of fear and "old think" -- sticking to old patterns because they were comfortable and less risky -- set in and helped reduce the will to see diplomacy through.

"People are just afraid of their own shadows," a senior State Department official said. "You propose something and people all scurry for cover. ... There is a collective inability to break the patterns of the past and the principles of the past. I mean, thirty years of doing something in a certain way is pretty powerful." This "collective inability," which is also present on the Iranian side but not necessarily for the same reasons, is what makes U.S.-Iranian tensions more than just an an­tagonistic relationship. It is an institutionalized enmity.

Excerpted from Trita Parsi's A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University press).