Winning Coalition for the U.S.-Iranian Nuclear Dispute

As Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv maneuver, the world is trying to figure out what the three sides really want, but there are no “three sides.” The conflict pits zero-sum militarists against positive-sum moderates.

All three sides are constantly in flux internally and in relation to each other, so even if the world knew all the secrets of each, where they are headed would still be unknowable for they do not know themselves. Yet logic can carry us rather far once we abandon the hopelessly simplistic image of “good” and “bad” regimes.
Starting with Tehran, it seems fairly safe to assume that at least three distinct perspectives are well represented within the factionalized and bitterly competitive ruling elite: 1) nuclear arms are “haram;” 2) nuclear arms per se may be risky but nuclear ambiguity is a great bargaining chip; 3) neither national security nor the realization of national goals is possible in a nuclear world without nuclear arms (i.e., this third faction may in turn be composed of a faction that feels the bomb is the only way to defend Iran and another faction that is committed to the high risk road of international adventure). It is illogical to assume that a fundamentalist religious regime claiming its right to rule is derived from God would repeatedly and publicly insist that nuclear arms are evil if it were committed to building them, so it is only logical to assume that some measure of genuine regime antipathy for owning nuclear arms truly exists. To the degree that nuclear ambiguity serves as a catalyst for persuading adversaries to negotiate in good faith, i.e., to offer something Tehran really wants, the Tehran faction that consider nuclear arms haramand the faction that is open to a pragmatic, positive-sum bargain will be thrown together, and Iranian media are replete with indications that the latter faction should not be discounted.

Hossein Mousavian–former Iranian nuclear negotiator with ties to Ali Larijani, a background of cooperating with the U.S. as an Iranian official, and now living in the U.S.–published a well-balanced and moderate op-ed in the Boston Globe that is rumored to present the position Jalili was advocating in Istanbul. Mousavian’s recommendations for Washington were surprisingly low-cost:

the United States should credibly demonstrate that the ultimate goal is “engagement’’ and not regime change. The P5+1 should offer a package that includes three major elements: 1) recognition of Iran’s inalienable rights for enrichment; 2) removal of the sanctions; and 3) normalization of Iran’s nuclear file. 



Although a neutral observer of the U.S.-Iran conflict might well imagine that Washington would at a minimum need to recognize Iran and address its legitimate national security concerns, Mousavian evidently considers neither of these concessions essential to making progress on the initial nuclear phase of the bilateral discord. For any Washington officials who may wish to avoid war, that is good news: tough U.S. moves toward peace can be postponed for later…presumably after the election.


The degree to which Mousavian represents the views of major Tehran power-holders of course remains unclear, but he has presented a low-cost set of U.S. moves that could put U.S.-Iranian discourse on a more professional foundation and his background suggests it is logical to assume his views will resonate with at least some portions of the Iranian national security establishment.
It should, in brief, be obvious to serious national security decision-makers in Washingtonthat it is in the national security interest of the U.S.to grease the wheels for an Iranian factional realignment by presenting compromise offers that promote cooperation rather than making hardline demands that equate to an Iranian surrender.

Factionalism is of course not limited to Iran. Tel Aviv is firmly under the control of the “Greater Israel” faction that is committed both to maximizing Israeli power and permanently subjugating the Palestinian people. But even this faction is fundamentally split between those represented by risk-seeking Netanyahu who seem eager to fight to the last American to shove Iran back into client status and those, represented by recently retired and risk-averse Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who worry about provoking a disaster for Israel. Neither moderate nor liberal factions appear to play any significant role in the current Israeli power structure, but many representatives of such views speak out bluntly and regularly in the Israeli media, cautioning about not only a self-provoked disaster for Israel but the immorality of Israel’s repression of Palestinians and the harm that the Israeli garrison state is doing to Israeli democracy. These out-of-power thinkers represent a potentially revolutionary force for Israel’s future that was far more influential traditionally in Israeli politics than it is today.
The extraordinarily bitter and irresponsible factionalism in Washington separates two sides of the old superpower coin: the neo-con, zero-sum militarist faction vs. the empire-light conservative Democrats. But progressive, moderate perspectives remain among Washington officials, even if marginalized, and the argument that Washington could, by skillful diplomacy, elicit more cooperation from a factionalized Iran can be turned around: a less awkward, short-sighted, and egregiously uncooperative Tehran could also elicit a more balanced, more positive-sum attitude on Washington’s part. The more Tehran removes ambiguity from its nuclear policy, the easier it will be for those forces in Washingtontrying to prevent war to prevail. To put it differently, the more Tehranhardliners hide what they are doing in Fordo, the more Iranian representatives at nuclear talks make speeches that lack detailed substantive compromise offers, the more they empower American neo-cons and Israeli “Greater Israel” advocates.
The current situation, then, is three sets of internally competitive factions, one in each country. As illustrated in “The Current U.S.-Iranian-Israeli Political Impass,” this unfortunate reality prevents resolution of the nuclear dispute by confusing common interest in national security with domestic political infighting, separating and weakening the forces in each country that could, if interacting, find a solution. This situation greatly empowers extremists because they do not need close coordination: it only takes one actor to start a war.
The road to a positive-sum solution that could potentially end the nuclear dispute with mutual acceptance of the independence and national security of all lies in the joint realization of those in each regime favoring cooperation that cooperation needs to begin at the factional rather than national level. Once coordination between the cooperative factions of the U.S. and Iran begins, the tone of the debate changes from “how can we defeat the enemy” to “how can we solve the problem.” Redefining the terms of debate is critical to finding a real solution. Once that happens, it becomes vastly easier to persuade members of the flexible faction to joint in, thus building momentum to marginalize extremists.

Two recent indications of apparent Iranian interest in cooperation are Larijani’s offer of eventual “permanent human monitors” and Jalili’s weekend reference to Khamenei’s fatwah as an opening to “disarmament.” While perhaps indicative of an Iranian interest in compromise, these rhetorical initiatives fall far short of the type of major substantive concession that Iran, with its huge nuclear infrastructure, could afford to make. Without harming its stance of nuclear ambiguity, Tehran could, for example, open the Fordo underground refinement facility or the Arak heavy water plant to full public inspection or announce temporary termination of construction and/or operation pending the removal of sanctions. Closing one while keeping the other open would demonstrate flexibility while making the statement that Iran has multiple options in the face of continued Western intransigence while weakening protests from Netanyahu that Obama’s willingness to negotiate was only giving Iran more time. A temporary concession made on the requirement of a Western response within a specified time would empower U.S. advocates of compromise now fatally weakened by Iranian refusal to go beyond rhetorical steps that can easily and not unreasonably be dismissed by Western cynics.

In sum, the simplest picture of what is happening that everyone needs to keep in their heads is not “Iran, the U.S., and Israel,” but three sets of factions vying for influence. To prevent war and resolve the nuclear dispute, the Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv factions willing to define a deal centered on the concepts of mutual security and a willingness to do business together must figure out a way to coordinate and shift the debate from zero-sum barbarism to positive-sum rationality.
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