When lip service meets reality

The scenario of US-Iran talks is arousing concern within Europe, Arab ME states, and Iran itself.

obama ahmadinejad 88 (photo credit: )
obama ahmadinejad 88
(photo credit: )
Ever since three European states (EU-3) - Britain, France and Germany - took the lead in 2003 in confronting the suspicions surrounding Iran's nuclear program through negotiations, the US has been criticized for not putting its full weight behind these diplomatic efforts. While the three states were happy to assume the role of chief negotiators with Iran, they nevertheless recognized their limitations in the realm of hard security guarantees to Iran. Therefore, it was not enough for the EU-3 that the US approved of Europe's efforts from the back seat; the US was urged to be a direct and active participant in the talks. Support for this view has come from the Arab world as well. The US has been called upon by most Arab states to abandon threats of military action - which many claim would spell disaster for the region - and actively join diplomatic efforts. And Iran itself, through Ahmadinejad, sent a similar message to the US: stop issuing threats, and start talking to us as equals. However, now that Barack Obama has been elected president and the option of direct US-Iranian negotiations seems a viable possibility, the enthusiasm of those that had pushed for such US involvement has waned. In fact, this scenario - that so many had paid lip service to - is ironically now arousing concern if not outright fear within Europe, Arab Middle Eastern states, and Iran itself. FOR EUROPE, the sense of concern has been attributed especially to French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, who has lately demonstrated a more active French policy toward the Middle East (especially as far as enhancing cooperation with a number of regional states in the nuclear realm), seems much less eager for a more prominent US role, particularly if the negotiator is the popular and charismatic Barack Obama. Sarkozy is quoted as having said in closed circles after meeting with Obama this past July that there is a danger of the US adopting an "arrogant policy" that ignores other states. He fears that the US will disregard the joint international efforts and open a direct dialogue with Iran without attention to the preconditions that have been set. The common interest in stopping Iran is important, but, it seems, not at the price of Europe being left out in the cold. The lesson to Europe: the US is still the global hegemon, so assume your role carefully. The fear of being left out is even stronger in the case of the moderate Arab states in the Gulf, Egypt, and Jordan. While in the case of Europe the issue is transatlantic rivalries, for these regional states the potential implications are much more acute. The recent meeting of the Quartet in Sharm-el-Sheikh was an occasion for the foreign ministers of these states to communicate their fears to the US. Concerns centered on the possibility that Obama would be too soft with Iran, and possibly close a deal with Iran that would leave this regional heavyweight even stronger. The prospect of Iran strengthening its hegemony at their expense is their major concern regarding the scenario of Iran becoming a nuclear state as well. The lesson to these states: hedging bets on Iran - namely, simultaneously expressing both fear from Iran and a desire to accommodate it - incurs a price. Finally, at least for the conservatives in Iran, while advocating negotiations when they were near impossible may have seemed a relatively risk free strategy, the reality of negotiations is a different story, especially with Obama. If the US becomes a more accommodating partner, how can they hope to unify people with slogans calling for death to America? And if he is more hard-line than they thought, this could be dangerous as well. It has been noted that one concern in Iran is that while George Bush's attitude may have alienated some states that then continued to do business with Iran, Obama's unifying effect may bring states such as Russia and China more in line with US policy. They may be more willing to see eye to eye with the US on the demands being put to Iran. In this way, Obama could be as dangerous as Bush, albeit in a different way. The lesson to Iran: your ability to divide and conquer has its limits. The Obama administration will most likely advocate negotiating directly with Iran. The parameters of the negotiation will have to be carefully planned, taking into account not only what the US wants to gain and what Iran can be expected to give, but the other relevant actors as well. The negotiation will require skill, determination, and leadership. To those who are wary: you can't have it both ways. The writer is Director of Arms Control and Regional Security Project Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.