Suddenly, it's springtime for diplomacy with Iran once again. After a year that saw a dramatic escalation of economic pressure against the Islamic Republic, the Obama administration and its allies are now once again talking to Tehran. Yesterday, negotiations concluded in Almaty, Kazakhstan on the latest round of multilateral diplomacy aimed at bringing Iran's nuclear ambitions to heel. Additional talks are now set for April, to be held once again in Kazakhstan.
The venue is highly symbolic, because of Kazakhstan's decision in the 1990s to voluntarily give up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal. But Iran's ayatollahs aren't likely to follow in the footsteps of long-serving Kazakh strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, even if the West makes good on promises to provide Iran with some level of relief from the sanctions now wreaking havoc on its economy. That's because the Islamic Republic sees nuclear status as a key strategic objective, rather than a diplomatic bargaining chip. It does so for three distinct reasons.
First, Iran desperately needs to bolster its international standing. Recent years have seen the Iranian regime experience a major reversal of fortune. Western pressure on Iran's trading partners, and the unpredictable currents of the "Arab Spring," have helped sideline the Iranian regime regionally. This is at odds with the Islamic Republic's vision of itself as a regional superpower — an indispensable nation with the power and legitimacy to shape Middle Eastern politics. Nuclear capability offers Iran's leaders a path back to that sort of geopolitical relevance.
Second, Iran seeks to deter potential aggression. In their atomic efforts, Iran's leaders have long operated on a simple assumption: the closer they are to nuclear status, the more secure their strategic position becomes. Their reasoning is understandable; Saddam Hussein's regime, which turned out to lack weapons of mass destruction, was promptly dispatched by the U.S.-led Coalition. By contrast, North Korea's abrupt nuclearization in 2003 has stymied U.S. strategy on the Korean Peninsula ever since. With this past and prologue, it's easy to understand why the Iranian regime has become convinced that nuclear status is the key to preempting Western ideas about preemption.
Finally, a nuclear capability has the power to reconfigure Iran's fractious domestic politics. The summer of 2009 saw the largest organized political protests in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. That wave of opposition, colloquially known as the "Green Movement," found its roots in the socio-economic inequalities and injustice that typify life under Iranian rule. Massive repression—and inattention from the United States and its allies—allowed the Iranian regime to quash the protests, but Iran's leaders are acutely aware that the circumstances that caused the Green Movement to coalesce still exist.
In fact, they are getting worse; in recent months, the Iranian national currency has virtually collapsed, inflation has soared and capital flight and black market activity have exploded. These are telling indicators of just how rickety the Iranian regime has become — and why it requires a nuclear capability to rally support or, at the very least, to be able to clamp down on its domestic opposition without fearing retribution from the outside world.
It stands to reason, then, that for negotiations to be successful they will need to reverse the prevailing perception held by Iran's leaders that attaining nuclear status is a key ingredient of regime stability. Rather, Western diplomacy and pressure alike must convince them that progress on the nuclear front will make their government less secure, perhaps fatally so.
Economic sanctions have begun to do that, and a further application of financial penalties, as well as additional pressure on the Iranian regime's trading partners, especially in Asia, can help amplify the message. So, too, can an array of supplemental measures, from support to various Iranian opposition groups to smart sanctions targeting the travel and assets of key regime leaders. But the message behind these efforts must be clear and unequivocal: if Iran wants to stay in business, it will need to get out of the nuclear business.
Anything short of that, and the latest rounds of diplomacy are destined to end up with the same result as their predecessors: Western failure, and further Iranian nuclear progress.