Originally published in The Guardian.
By Gareth Smyth
There is an old view that Iranians are formidable diplomats. Perhaps it is in the genes, or perhaps it results from centuries of practice conducting the foreign relations of great dynasties.
Sir Thomas Herbert, a writer who accompanied British diplomats to Iran in the 17th century, noted that visiting foreigners were encouraged to wear their own dress “so that the greater the variety” the more the Shah would feel “his court and country [were] honoured at home and [held] in estimation abroad”.
Among the best-sellers at last month’s Tehran international book fair was a biography of foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. In its sixth printing since its release in 2013, “Mr Ambassador” collects interviews telling the life story of the diplomat set to deliver a nuclear agreement with world powers.
Does the work of Zarif and president Hassan Rouhani show that hard-headed, practical diplomacy has been wedded to the ideological zeal of the 1979 Islamic Revolution?
Complex, detailed and long-running talks with world powers over the nuclear programme are now concentrating on how any agreement might be verified, and how sanctions might come back into play if Iran violated any of the terms. “This is simultaneously political and technical,” a European diplomat involved in talks in Vienna told me. “The technical and the political people are having to work very closely together”.
This illustrates a central difficulty in the talks – maintaining unity among world powers. The United States wants sanctions that “snap back” automatically, and Russia wants any re-imposition referred to the UN security council. At the same time, United States secretary of state John Kerry has to deal with the hostility towards the talks from Washington’s two main Middle Eastern allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Richard LeBaron, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Kuwait as well as deputy chief of mission in Israel, told me that fears among the Sunni-led Arab states and Israel over Iran are for different reasons, but real enough.
“The Arabs fear Iranian revolutionary zeal, their dedication to spreading their influence in the Arab region, and they believe that the US intends to use Iran to create some sort of balance against their interests,” he said. “Nuclear proliferation has never been high on their list of concerns. But any step out of isolation by Iran is considered a step backward for the Saudis. Israel fears a somewhat unpredictable nuclear power in the Middle East, which ideologically opposes it: they don’t much care about Iran’s regional meddling other than its support for Hezbollah and its minor support for Hamas.”
Those who negotiate with Iran express a mixture of respect and frustration. Two former European diplomats who dealt with Iran during the European Union’s 2003-05 nuclear negotiations told me of serious challenges.
Sir Richard Dalton, British ambassador to Iran 2002-06, recalls Iranian diplomats being “dogged and determined” while frequently changing position. “They often think in terms of conspiracies,” he said. “Their convoluted analysis of plots has to be slowly and carefully deconstructed to locate the common ground on whatever is the issue of the day.”
There is also domestic Iranian politics. “A revolutionary country, its diplomats and negotiators, can be outflanked by radicals claiming to be the true exponents of national values,” Sir Richard said. “They [Iranian politicians or diplomats] often speak of external enemies as a way of fostering internal unity. There is usually lively argument [in Tehran] among the factions and the personalities in the leadership and it takes time to resolve them - hence the need for [anyone negotiating with Iran to have] patience and a thick skin.”
Paul von Maltzahn, Germany’s ambassador in Tehran from 2003 to 2006, also warned of the dangers of Iranian domestic politics, particularly if talks go beyond the deadline of June 30. “They should not stick too much to timetables. If 30 June does not work, then go on. This is important enough. [But] I am speaking of one week, two weeks, not a long time, because then of course the process unravels.”
Von Maltzahn remembers the particular problem of knowing exactly when Iran’s negotiators were speaking with authority. Back in 2003 Rouhani, then Iran’s leading nuclear negotiator as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, took time out at delicate points during talks at the Sadabad palace, north Tehran to telephone Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, seeking approval.
But von Maltzahn also recalls a senior Iranian negotiator floating proposals without making clear if they were hypothetical, much less if they had the backing of the leader. Hossein Mousavian, effectively Rouhani’s deputy, came to the German residence “a few times” when he “flew kites, trying out ideas”.
Some European diplomats saw such “kite-flying” as a deliberate means to confuse, and were especially suspicious that Iranian negotiators were seeking tactical advantage when they warned time was running out for a deal because they were under growing pressure from their own “hardliners”.
This was never an easy judgement. Indeed, just as the Iranians had warned, the talks’ failure and the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president did lead to the removal of both Rouhani and Mousavian as negotiators and even, briefly, to Mousavian’s arrest in 2007. The Europeans then spent several years listening to lectures from Saeed Jalili as the Iranian nuclear programme expanded.
But – despite, or perhaps because of their experience in Tehran – both von Maltzahn and Dalton express cautious optimism over the current talks. In contrast to 2003-05, the United States is not only directly involved but has agreed to accept in principle that Iran can continue some uranium enrichment.
It is France that now takes the toughest approach, especially in demanding access for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to military sites and that Iran give more thorough explanations of alleged past research.
But while Iran’s official line – strongly expressed by Khamenei – is that allowing access to military sites would cross its “red lines”, von Maltzahn believes Rouhani in 2003-05 indicated the issue was not entirely closed. “Rouhani regarded this as a playing card, something that might be played at some stage,” he said. “The big thing for Iran is really “non-discrimination”, so they are not treated differently to anyone else.”
For von Maltzahn, Tehran’s thinking points towards an agreement. “Iran has come to conclude that the nuclear option is not necessary for them to have more power projected in the area. With the decline or disappearance of Iraq, and with Egypt’s lack of a regional role, de facto Iran is the most powerful nation in the area. They don’t need nuclear parity with Israel, and in any case it’s far too costly. So why go that way?”
Other regional powers have long been assessing the consequences of a nuclear agreement. Is it a precedent for other efforts to solve problems through diplomacy?
Saudi Arabia portrays its bombing strikes against the Houthis in Yemen as a means to resist Iran’s attempt to back regional allies, but can the Saudis deploy negotiators as well as F-16s? Von Maltzahn looked sceptical when asked why Riyadh in 2013 rejected the chance to sit on the UN security council and present its case to the world. “What case?” he quipped.
By contrast, the former German ambassador to Tehran expressed professional regard for Iran’s diplomatic team, describing Zarif as “courageous”. His highest praise was for Abbas Aragchi, who has done much of the work on the Iranian side. “He comes from a family of carpet dealers. He’s very honest and straightforward – for an Isfahani.”