No Grand Bargain with Iran

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Amb. William Rugh

Boardmember, Middle East Policy Council.
A version of this op-ed was first published in Arabic in al Ittihad newspaper in Abu Dhabi, July 28, 2015.

The United States has been in a confrontation with Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979, and during that time various Americans have put forward proposals to end the conflict. In recent years, one proposal that received considerable attention among US policy analysts was the idea of proposing a “grand bargain”. The idea was that since there were many grievances on both sides of the dispute, perhaps the best way to resolve them was not by picking one issue at a time but laying them all out on the table and finding trade-offs that could resolve them all at once.

The grand bargain idea remained the favorite of some people who continued to promote it as a clever solution to a continuing problem, but it was never tried by any US president. When Barack Obama was elected president seven years ago, he talked in general terms about the possibility of engagement with Iran, but he was not specific, and nothing came of it. Then three years ago he began to focus on the possibility of a negotiation with Iran over one very narrow specific issue, namely nuclear weapons. In effect he rejected the idea of a grand bargain with Iran and instead sought to deal with what he considered the most dangerous aspect of the relationship with Iran.

Obama allowed direct contacts to take place with Iran that focused only on the possibility of negotiating an agreement on nuclear weapons. In deciding to focus his engagement policy very narrowly, he did not give up the grievances and complaints that the United States has had about Iran’s behavior in other areas. He wanted to compartmentalize the nuclear weapon issue and wall it off from everything else in order to concentrate everyone’s attention on that one problem.

Obama worked to assemble a coalition of seven countries, including all of the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, to be part of the team negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue. Several of those team members also had other serious grievances with Iran, but they too agreed that it was important to focus intently on the nuclear issue to see if something could be accomplished there.

The nuclear negotiations have now been concluded and during the coming months the parties to the so-called “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” will work to try to implement its terms. The very detailed agreement of 159 pages including a great deal of technical detail, focuses entirely on Iran’s nuclear program and matters directly related to it, nothing else. It is totally different from a grand bargain.

But in a major speech that he gave after the agreement was announced, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took time to spell out Iran’s grievances against the United States in detail. When he did so, his audience picked up the hint of his message, and started chanting “Death to America”, a refrain that Iranian leaders and the public have been repeating for decades.

In his speech, the Grand Ayatollah, who is the ultimate decision maker in Iran, started by complaining that the United States was supporting the Government of Bahrain against Bahrain’s Shiite majority, which he said was being unfairly disenfranchised. He then talked about the Palestinians and charged the US with collaborating with the Israelis in punishing Palestinians. After that he complained about American support for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in their effort to end the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. And then the Grand Ayatollah turned to Syria, where he said the US policy is leading to the domination of radical Islamic groups such as al Qaida or the Islamic state.

By specifically listing these Iranian grievances against America, Khamenei seems to be trying to do two things. First, he is appealing to conservative and anti-American elements inside Iran that might have objections to an agreement with the United States and the other members of the nuclear negating team. The Iranian regime has used anti-American rhetoric ever since the revolution to bolster their popularity at home. The regime seems to believe it is an essential part of their success in staying in power.

The second reason for Khamenei’s attack on the United States so soon after the agreement was announced, is that he is trying to assert Iran’s leadership in the Middle East by endorsing complaints that he believes are widely shared throughout the Arab countries.

President Obama’s response is to explain that American support for the nuclear agreement does not mean he has abandoned its opposition to Iran on other issues. He made that clear in an interview he gave to the New York Times immediately after the announcement of the nuclear deal. He said that there were “deep trends” in Iran that are “contrary not only to our own national security interests and views but those of our allies and friends in the region, and those divisions are real.”

President Obama was referring to several major issues where the United States strongly opposes the Iranian regime, and on which the United States agrees with important Arab states. The United States and the Gulf Arab states call for Syrian President Bashaar al Assad to step down, but Iran is propping him up. Washington also opposes the Hizbollah intervention in Syria on Assad’s side by Hizbollah, an Iranian proxy. In Iraq, Washington has expressed concern about the nature of Iranian direct intervention by its militias. In Yemen, the United States is supporting the effort led by Saudi Arabia to restore President al Hadi to power, while Iran is backing the Houthi insurrection. The Obama administration has made clear its displeasure with Iran on all these issues, despite the new nuclear agreement, and that will not change. Serious bilateral disagreements remain. There is no grand bargain.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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