After months of negotiating over venue, agenda and the size of the table, Iran and the United States are once more set to resume their dialogue. The Islamic Republic’s diplomacy is a delicate balancing act between competing and contradictory objectives. The regime’s regional ambitions require nuclear weapons, and yet its predicament necessitates nuclear negotiations. To manage this paradox, Iran will seek a protracted diplomatic process that may involve some modest concessions but avoids a larger nuclear settlement. Indeed, Tehran’s principal motivation for participating in the talks has little to do with its nuclear file and much to do with its desire to fracture international unity, relieve financial distress and, most important, gain a free hand in suppressing its opposition “green movement.”
The Islamist regime has all the attributes of a police state: midnight knocks on doors, show trials, arbitrary imprisonment and torture of political dissidents. And the level of abuse usually intensifies before important international conclaves. At ease with the notion that the global community’s preoccupation with gradations of enrichment and spinning centrifuges will divert it from pressing Iran on its human rights record, the mullahs typically escalate their repression at home before dispatching their diplomats abroad.
In recent weeks, that pattern is eerily manifesting itself, as scores of civil society activists and lawyers have been arrested and university campuses are again the scene of harsh police interventions. The regime seems to perceive that nuclear diplomacy means that it can freely impose its authority on its restive constituency. For the clerical rulers, there is a clear connection between the green movement and the nuclear program: The more Iran engages the world on its nuclear infractions, the easier it is to repress its domestic opponents.
Tehran also hopes to utilize the talks to forestall the possibility of further economic sanctions. Despite its ritualistic denials, the sanctions adroitly orchestrated by the Obama administration have had a dramatic impact on Iran’s already mismanaged economy. The regime hopes that by participating in talks, it can erode the will of the international community and entice its erstwhile commercial partners to reenter the Iranian market. The mullahs are counting on the Chinese and Russians to suggest that it would be ill-advised to impose additional penalties on Iran while negotiations progress. Washington and its European allies are determined to sustain pressure on Iran, but they may find it difficult to maintain a consensus should Iran appear superficially reasonable. Nevertheless, Washington must include in these talks a forceful defense of the green movement and human rights.
For Tehran, comprehensive negotiations have other potential advantages. By insisting on a broad agenda that includes important regional issues such as the stability of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran seeks to signal to the Arab states that the United States officially acknowledges its centrality in stabilizing the Middle East. Such a negotiating platform is designed to further unease Arab rulers and estrange the U.S. from its local allies.
All this calls into question the plausibility of a transactional relationship with Iranian leaders. An ideologically revisionist regime ruled by men who claim to know the mind of God is hardly prone to concede to international legalities. Iran’s approach to its pledges is to sustain them only to the point of convenience.
The only way out of this conundrum is to alter the context of Iranian politics. The imposition of sanctions is important but by itself insufficient. Should the U.S. and its allies align their policy with the aspirations of the green movement, Washington would finally have leverage that can impress its Iranian interlocutors. Until then, American diplomats will spend frustrating days seeking a constructive path to an elusive disarmament compact.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.