In January 2009, just before Gary Samore left his position as Vice-President for Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, he summed up his rather cynical view of how Iran would conduct negotiations.
"The logical position the Iranians are bound to take," he wrote in a post on the Council's website, "is: 'We're happy to talk forever, as long as we can keep building centrifuges.'"
A few days later, Samore was named President Barack Obama's top adviser on nuclear proliferation, making him one of the most influential figures in the administration with regards to diplomacy toward Iran.
The strategy he attributed to Tehran of using negotiations to "play for time" while advancing to the goal of enough enriched uranium for nuclear weapons has been clearly expressed in recent statements by Obama and other senior administration officials in anticipation of new nuclear talks with Tehran.
For Obama's advisers, assuming Iran was simply "playing for time" justifies a heavy reliance on "coercive diplomacy," which combines a boycott of the country's crude oil exports and hints that an Iranian failure to come to agreement would open the way for an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites. But that conventional wisdom, which the Obama administration inherited from the Bush administration, ignores the accumulated evidence that Iran's diplomacy strategy is to accumulate centrifuges, not in order to support a weapons program, but rather to negotiate a larger bargain with the United States.
That strategy, gleaned from sources in direct contact with Iranian national security officials and from Iran's actual diplomatic record, can be summed up in three principles:
- Iran should negotiate with the United States only when it has achieved sufficient negotiating leverage to achieve substantial concessions.
- The objective of negotiations with the United States is to end US policies of overt hostility to the Islamic Republic and have them accept Iran's legitimate role in the regional politics of the Middle East.
- Iran's primary negotiating chip in any talks is a stockpile of enriched uranium.
Contrary to the convenient argument that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei resists agreement with the United States, he and leading officials on the Supreme National Security Council have long viewed negotiations with the United States as the only way that the Iran can achieve full security and emerge as a full-fledged regional power.
But Khamenei has very decided views about the timing of such negotiations. The proposal by then President Mohammed Khatemi to engage the United States in a political dialogue in January 1998 was sharply criticized by Khamenei. However, Khamenei's argument was not that negotiations with the United States were unacceptable in principle, but rather that Iran was not yet in a strong enough bargaining position to achieve a favorable outcome.
Soon after George W Bush demonized Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" in late 2001 and early 2002, Khamenei again denounced the idea of negotiations with the United States under those conditions as useless. But a series of seismic changes over the next year altered the Supreme Leader's strategic assessment.
Increased bargaining power
The first such change was the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In the short run, US military presence on Iran's border posed the threat of a possible US invasion of Iran. But if Iran had only been afraid of such an invasion, it would certainly have mobilised public opinion to prepare to defend the country.
Instead Khamenei prepared for a complex diplomatic engagement with the United States on the assumption that Iran now had new diplomatic leverage. The proposal Iran made to the Bush administration in May 2003 clearly assumed that the United States would be unable to gain control over Iraq without Iran's help. It offered "Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilisation and the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government."
The Iranian national security elite believed two other developments in 2002 and early 2003 gave Iran bargaining chips it could use in negotiations with Washington. One was the Bush administration's need for Iran's cooperation in interrogating al-Qaeda leaders who had been detained in Iran after fleeing from Afghanistan. But the biggest source of leverage, the Iranians believed, was the Bush administration's dramatically increased concern about Iran's ability to enrich uranium, which had taken US intelligence by surprise. After the first IAEA visit to the uranium facility at Natanz in February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed alarm, saying Natanz showed that "Iran is much further along, with a far more robust nuclear weapons development program than anyone said it had."
The convergence of those three new developments convinced Khamenei that the moment had come to engage the United States diplomatically. Khamenei approved a secret proposal to the Bush administration in April 2003 for negotiations on the full range of issues dividing the two countries.