Dennis Ross, until recently in charge of Iran in the Obama White House, has outlined why he thinks strengthened sanctions have created an environment in which diplomacy may now work to block Tehran’s development of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it is being reported that Iran has finally responded to a European Union letter requiring that renewed talks focus specifically on ensuring that the Iranian nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
These are important developments, but they leave out half the equation. What can Iran hope to get from nuclear talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — plus Germany? Iran will certainly seek relief from sanctions, which have become truly punishing. But they will want more.
It is clear that Tehran’s first priority is an end to American efforts at regime change. This is not an issue Americans know or think much about, but it obsesses the Iranians. They believe that Washington has tried to bring about regime change in Tehran for decades. Iranian officials can entertain you for hours with stories about American (and Israeli) assistance to Azeri, Baloch and Kurdish rebels. The Arab Spring uprisings took their inspiration in part from Iran’s own “Green Movement,” which protested fraud in the 2009 presidential elections before being brutally repressed. While some in Congress view President Obama as insufficiently supportive of the Greens, the regime in Tehran thought the Americans were behind the whole movement.
The nuclear program, in addition to beefing up Iran’s military muscle and regional prestige, is also intended to end attempts at regime change, as it is thought in Tehran that the U.S. will not attack a nuclear weapons state for fear of the consequences. To those looking for it, there is ample supporting evidence: Witness the contrast between North Korea, a severely repressive regime that has obtained nuclear weapons, and Libya, which gave up its nuclear efforts and suffered a NATO air war that brought about regime change.
So the question becomes this: Will the Americans be prepared to take regime change off the table if the Iranians are prepared to give ironclad and verifiable assurances that their nuclear program is entirely peaceful? The answer to that question is not obvious. While it is barely possible to picture Washington recognizing Tehran and re-establishing diplomatic relations after a 32-year hiatus, it is far harder to picture a bilateral agreement promising mutual noninterference in internal affairs. Certainly an agreement of that sort would not find ready approval in Congress.