Neil Padukone
1. Better understand assumptions
US-Iranian enmity is not just a matter of differences in goals, but a self-perpetuating institution unto itself. In the United States, promising to attack Iran has been a surefire way of garnering electoral support. The relationship does not fall into the realm of the rational, just the "rationale."
2. Better understand needs
Diplomacy must understand and attempt to reconcile a broader array of interests.
Washington sees today’s Iran against a history of national disgrace and regional disquiet. From the US perspective, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and ensuing hostage crisis were some of the greatest humiliations for America. Through its proxy, Hezbollah, Iran killed 241 American marines in Lebanon in 1983 and shifted the tide of regional stability with its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. More recently allegedly, Iranian support in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf, and even Africa has destabilised those regions and gone against American interests.
Given this record, Iran’s nuclear programme, though less of a danger than many profess, is seen in the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as a threat to the region.
Why might Iran seek a nuclear deterrent in the first place? In 1953, Iranian democracy was the victim of an American-led overthrow. Its post-revolutionary leaders feel threatened by the US military presence in the region. America has troops in nearby Afghanistan and Iraq, a Nato base in Turkey, and a US naval base in Bahrain. It has alliances in the Caucasus and military relationships with the Arabs of the Gulf – not to mention its support for Iraq in a war that killed an estimated half million Iranians in the 1980s.
America and Israel have given armed support to anti-Iranian insurgents, while sanctions have stunted Iranian development for decades. And even when President Obama “extended a hand” to Tehran in 2009, the United States was simultaneously ramping up cyber warfare programmes against Iran .
If you were an Iran’s Ayatollah facing an American threat, would you rather wind up like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who didn’t have a bomb and were toppled? Or like North Korea, Pakistan, China, Israel, and India, which do have the bomb and were given concessions, and in some cases, military aid?
Iran’s nuclear programme has become not just a strategic necessity in the eyes of the country’s ruling elites, but even an issue of pride for those in the opposition. The programme speaks to Iran’s desire to be recognised as the regional leader that its geography, population, and influence otherwise make it.
From America’s perspective, these talks have been about the nuclear programme. But from Iran’s, there can be no resolution of the nuclear programme without resolving Iran’s broader insecurity, which is what drives the nuclear programme. Ultimately, these talks must be a part of a broader realignment of the US-Iranian relationship.
3. Getting to maybe
This can start by recognising common interests: stability in Afghanistan and Iraq (where Iran provided America political support and intelligence in the wake of the invasions); upgraded energy infrastructure and trade in the region; a reduction of militancy like the Taliban; and a Central Asia and Gulf in which Iran does not feel threatened.
Of course, a resolution to the deeply ingrained differences that drive Iran’s nuclear programme won’t happen in a day. Talks are a single event; but diplomacy is a process that takes time and commitment, and engages the multiple power centres in each country.
4 . Help from friends
Most talks have involved the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany (the "P5+1"). These countries either side with the US position on Iranian intransigence (UK, France, Germany), or share Iran’s view of its own sovereignty and even benefit from the standoff (Russia, China). There are no participants in the talks that bridge the gap.
Yet a number of countries find themselves, often uncomfortably, in the middle of the two, and hope for an understanding between Washington and Tehran.
In 2010, Turkey and Brazil joined forces to broker a pact in which Tehran agreed to limitations on its nuclear programme that President Obama had previously endorsed. (Washington nonetheless rejected the deal for being too little, too late).
Similarly, while hosting America’s Central Command military base, Qatar explores gas fields with Tehran and hopes to include Iran (and Israel) in a new Gulf security arrangement. And India has economic, political, and strategic interests with both Tehran and Washington, making it an important interlocutor.
Not only can these and other countries provide a safe political space for both sides, but they can also tangibly help solve the nuclear problem and its related issues. They can, for instance, host an international reprocessing centre to store spent nuclear fuel; they can invest in Iran’s energy sector to bolster trade, among other incentives and restrictions.
If there is to be any progress in the region, diplomacy ought to be given the attention and resources it deserves.
Neil Padukone is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution and the author of a forthcoming book on the future of conflict in South Asia.
                     –Christen Science Monitor