By Nicholas Hager, Transatlantic Community Analyst
Iran seems to have Western observers and policymakers befuddled. A steadfast, but potentially erstwhile, antagonist of the West, it is currently in the midst of fulfilling its obligations under a deal it signed with the P5+1 to forestall its putative nuclear weapons program, most recently halting its high-level uranium enrichment and even proposing a redesign for the controversial Arak heavy-water facility. On the other hand, it has exacerbated tensions with the West by appointing Hamid Aboutalebi – a member of the student group that stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979 – as its envoy to the UN, which has elicited denunciations in official and private U.S. circles.
While some may be quick to assert that such incongruent actions somehow prove that Iran is merely out to toy with the West – or, at least, that we should be skeptical of anything it does – it actually illustrates the need for both sides to remain patient while refraining from provocative actions and statements, regardless of how well they play with their domestic bases. This is true of other recent diplomatic setbacks between Iran and the West, including Iran’s decision to send warships on a dry run near U.S. territorial waters and its unveiling of an alleged copy of a U.S. stealth drone it captured in 2011, but the UN envoy example is particularly illustrative because it reveals the potential for misinterpretation on both sides. This cautions us to be more thoughtful in our decision-making, lest an innocent gesture turn into a gaffe, and from there into an incident.
While the U.S. has conveyed to Iran and the UN the reasons why it will reject Aboutalebi’s visa application, there is little reason to believe that his selection for the role came as a result of his involvement in “the events of 1979, [events] which clearly matter profoundly to the American people.” In Iran, he is described as a “moderate [who] is opposed by Iran’s hard-liners,” and another Iranian analyst emphasized that Aboutalebi is actually “more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others in his country. Moreover, his involvement in the 1979 hostage crisis has been established to be minimal as Abbas Abdi, one of the original hostage takers, has confirmed that “Aboutalebi was not in Tehran during the initial invasion” and had “no relation to the decision-making team.” Aboutalebi himself has said that he served as no more than a translator.
The disconnect is clear: the U.S. believes Aboutalebi is tainted by his involvement in the hostage crisis and that his appointment is meant as a “willfully…contemptuous” jab at Washington. On the other hand, the Iranian government holds the position that Aboutalebi is a capable, effective, respected, and reformist diplomat who would exemplify President Rouhani’s equally reformist approach. Regardless of Iran’s intentions, however, it should have anticipated the resistance it would face from the U.S. or, at the very least, should be more willing to compromise on its choice. It may seem an arbitrary objection on the U.S.’ part, but Iran must realize that it is touching a very real nerve with its selection and would do well to take this into account if it is truly interested in efficient, congenial diplomacy. Even if Aboutalebi were to be accepted by the U.S., such controversy undermines his effectiveness and, as a former State Department official argues, makes him “toxic” because “[his] very presence…will open wounds that still fester [after] thirty-five years…Who will listen to him…when his past [invokes] so much hostility?”
On the other side of the equation, U.S. officials and citizens should understand that Aboutalebi only “poses a threat only to the blood pressure level of certain politicians” and that “many of the hostage takers…are [now] staunch reformists who…regret the direction Iran has taken.” Instead of assuming that these individuals are forever tainted and allowing hardliners to continue to occupy the headlines with unhelpful vituperation, we should recognize that this approach makes us appear as irrational and hostile as we perceive Iran’s hardline rhetoric to be. This makes a final deal, and even a working relationship, all the more difficult to achieve.
That said, the relationship has seen tremendous progress in the last year and, even within the last few months, there have been indications that Iran is genuinely interested in foregoing its erstwhile hostility and meeting its international obligations. In addition to halting its high-level uranium enrichment, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced in late April that Iran would “dilute half of [its stockpile] of 20-percent enriched uranium and oxidize the other half” in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations and the Geneva accord. On top of that, the fact that Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi has proposed a redesign of the Arak heavy-water facility – one that would diminish its production to roughly “one-fifth of the plutonium [it was] initially planned” to produce – is promising because this was “a major bone of contention” between the sides as recently as the last round of negotiations in Vienna.
There are still concerns, however, about Iran’s progress toward fulfilling its obligations. The “harder problems of how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate…what to do about…the Fordow enrichment plant…[and] Natanz” all still remain. And the establishment of a facility that converts low-enriched uranium gas into an oxide powder that cannot be highly-enriched – one important aspect of the interim agreement – has been delayed. But analysts believe that “[t]he delay is not long enough to raise a red flag” and that the reason for it is likely to be technical because it “is hard to believe that Iran would not meet…[the] commitment it has made…in good faith.”
While these issues need to be addressed, they need not be accompanied by counterproductive overreactions. This means that Iran should not conclude that the West is set against it because the U.S. rejects, for its own reasons, what Iran believes to be a perfectly capable diplomat. This also means that the West should not see pushback by Iran, over its ideal number of centrifuges for example, as evidence that it is racing to the bomb. Even a few years ago, these negotiations would have seemed chimerical, so the ham-fisted imputations of malice and half-baked assertions that disagreement on details implies general disagreement must be effectively tempered before they are allowed scuttle this nuclear deal and the rare opportunity it presents.