U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT) attended the Munich Security Conference this past weekend, where he sat on a panel alongside Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, and IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano. (You can catch video of the panel here.) He then returned to the States in time to partake in Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran, where he played defense for the White House and argued against any Congressional action that would have the effect of disrupting the ongoing talks with Iran and the P5+1. In doing so, Senator Murphy has become a player in the policy field, representing the United States in international fora and playing vanguard for the White House in helping derail the new Iran sanctions bill.
But something he said during his short remarks at the Committee hearing struck me as an emblem for how little we still understand Iran and the interests that motivate it. Showing how he remains an ardent supporter of the U.S. sanctions on Iran even while opposing new ones, Senator Murphy recalled with a smile how Foreign Minister Zarif had made the “laughable contention” that U.S. sanctions had done little to press Iran to the negotiating table. Obviously, Murphy meant, Iran had been dragged to the table because of the U.S. sanctions, and Iran’s good-faith negotiation thus far was nothing more than a design to procure the desired sanctions relief.
For Murphy, sanctions are thus the sole cause for Iran’s willingness to negotiate. This view is not an atypical one. It is rather the premise upon which all discussion of the Iran nuclear dispute begins in the United States. To hold otherwise — i.e., to admit that Iran might have interests of its own that go beyond mere sanctions relief and that signal a desire to reintegrate with the broader world in unique and independent ways — is alleged to be anathema to reasoned debate and suggests that someone has picked up the Iranians’ talking points and run with them. Murphy can smirkingly write off Zarif’s “laughable contention” the way he does precisely because of this ‘sacred cow’ in U.S. political discourse. The unchallenged, after all, arrive arrogant.
But as others — including Hossein Mousavian, a former Iran official part of Rouhani’s old negotiating team — have repeated ad nauseam, Iran is negotiating now with virtually the same proposal it had offered the E3 back in 2005. That was long before the U.S. started its massive sanctions push first at the United Nations and then in Congress. Chronologically, then, relief from the then-phantom sanctions could hardly have been a motivating factor for Iran to negotiate seriously with the Europeans, as they did in the pre-Ahmadinejad period.
When Mousavian sat on a panel with seasoned U.S. diplomats, Thomas Pickering and Robert Einhorn, last month at the Asia Society, he pointedly asked Einhorn, who had just retired from his post as the U.S.’s chief negotiator with Iran, how to explain Iran’s March 2005 proposal if sanctions were the cause for Iran’s willingness to deal seriously on the nuclear issue now. Einhorn didn’t oblige, coyly stating that he didn’t want to go into it. His answer, however, would have been as interesting as his silence was revealing.
- Did he not want to discuss the issue because it would strike down the mantra that has dominated U.S. political discourse of Iran since at least 2006?
- Would it be the wrong time to admit to past U.S. mistakes in dealing with Iran on the nuclear issue, including the lost opportunities of the pre-Ahmadinejad period?
- Is there something about Iran’s March 2005 proposal that didn’t make it an eminently reasonable perch from which to negotiate tighter limits on Iran’s nuclear program?
- Why, in short, is Iran’s March 2005 proposal eviscerated from U.S. political memory?
These are all important questions that deserve answer. But underlying them is an even deeper one: Does the United States and its political leadership have the ability to recognize and appreciate Iranian activity that deviates from the tableau vivant that the United States itself has created for Iran?
I’m not so sure. This whole episode suggests not. The failure of U.S. political leadership to recognize the diversity of Iranian interests in coming to the table, only one part of which is a desire for sanctions relief, is troubling, insofar as it signals we don’t understand either the intentions or motivations of the party sitting across from us. And if that is the case, believing that sanctions relief is the only, or even most important, source of leverage we have over the Iranians during negotiations may prove to be very untrue and may spell trouble for the fate of the upcoming negotiations.
There may come a time in the not-so-distant future where we realize that everything we know about Iran is wrong. 34 years of endless hostility might have had that effect. But let’s hope that leadership in the White House and Congress can be a little more sensitive to the way Iranians view things from the other side of the table. Doing so might just not help illuminate the difficult terrain both parties have ahead in the negotiations, but may also ensure that the U.S. is offering the right things at the right time to extract important concessions from Iran in regards to its nuclear program.