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Making a U.S.-Iranian Nuclear Deal

By R.K. Ramazani (distributed by Agence Global - Nov 9, 2009)

Most experts say that Iran's turbulent domestic politics explain the country's "equivocation" after agreeing to a nuclear deal with the United States. But that explanation of Iran's behavior fails to account for the profound historical and psychological factors that impede Iran-U.S. nuclear negotiations.

The United States and Iran do not trust each other. Iran's mistrust started in 1953 when the CIA engineered a coup that destroyed the pro-democracy government of Iran, returned the autocratic shah to the throne, and dominated the country for the next quarter century. These events were seared deep into the collective memory of Iranians.

Likewise, Americans were traumatized by what Iran did to them. In 1979, militant students took over the U.S. Embassy and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 agonizing days. The students suspected that the shah's admission to the United States for medical treatment was instead a plot by the U.S. to return the shah to the throne, as it had in 1953.

For more than two decades before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States had been the midwife of Iran's nuclear program. It signed the first technical nuclear assistance agreement with Iran in1957, helped establish Iran's first nuclear reactor, delivered 5.54 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to Iran in 1967, and supported Iran's program for building 23 nuclear reactors in 1974. Led by the United States, European countries also aided the development of Iran's nuclear program.

After the revolution, however, all Western nuclear aid to Iran stopped in its tracks. The United States, Germany, France and Britain reneged on their technical assistance agreements with Iran. Since 2002, when Iran's secret underground nuclear facility at Natanz was divulged by an opposition group outside Iran, the United States and these European nuclear powers have accused Iran of violating its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and have pressured Iran unilaterally and through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Security Council to stop uranium enrichment.

All along, the West has suspected Iran of planning to make nuclear bombs under the guise of a civilian nuclear program. It had even suspected the friendly shah of harboring the same ambition. And all along Iran has suspected the West of trying to deny its "inalienable right" to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the NPT.

This age-old mutual mistrust hovers over the currently stalled nuclear deal. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei complained on Nov. 3 that America talks about negotiation but threatens forcible action unless it gets everything it wants. A day later, President Barack Obama called on Iran to leave behind its "sustained suspicion, mistrust and confrontation." Yet on the same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran to accept the deal, which she said would not be altered. Iran wondered what kind of negotiation it was when she was saying in effect: "Take it or leave it."

To overcome the entrenched mutual mistrust, both the United States and Iran must try to take steps to build mutual confidence. At a minimum, the United States needs to be patient, to refrain from setting myriad deadlines which Iran's diplomatic culture views as ultimatums, and to stop issuing threats, which fire up Iran's fierce sense of independence and resistance, fueled by thousands of years of foreign invasions, occupations, incursions and other interference.

But soft language is not enough. Negotiations require give and take. The West should realize that the incentives it offered after Iran voluntarily suspended its enrichment of uranium in 2003 were not meaningful enough to rebuild confidence.

If the government and the people of Iran consider the deal to be in Iran's national interest, they should accept it. It would be a major and unprecedented step toward building mutual confidence. By accepting the deal, with little delay, Iran would show the world that it does not plan to weaponize nuclear energy, that it truly believes nuclear bomb building is against its Islamic principles, and that it is genuinely committed to the principle of non-proliferation.

About the author:

R.K. Ramazani, widely considered the dean of Iranian foreign policy studies in the United States, is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Copyright © 2009 R.K. Ramazani -- distributed by Agence Global

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