Gulf Research Center Analysis
Iran’s 2003 Memo: A Starting Point for Negotiations?
23 April, 2009
Security and Terrorism Department
"Iran is like a train without brakes and without reverse gear." This is what the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated this week highlighting Iran’s determination to go ahead with the state's plans without considering the costs. In a previous speech on Army Day, the Iranian leader had declared that Iran is “one of the strongest” nations in the region and a “great part of the world.”
Such statements from the Iranian leadership are not promising considering the expected negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program with the US. It is statements like these that make it so difficult for a country to deal with Iran and accept it as a trustworthy, reliable partner in negotiations.
Behind the typical emotional statements lies well-calculated national interest, as the leadership may be seeking to whip up internal public support or gain greater leverage before sitting down at the negotiation table. Many observers do argue that, apart from the emotional slogans, Iranian policy can be rational when the country’s leadership understands the rules of the game. This was evident in 2003 when, just after the successful US invasion of Iraq and the removal of the Ba'ath regime, the Iranian leadership, fearing possible American action to undermine the regime in Tehran, decided to approach the US with a comprehensive offer to settle their differences.
The offer included a proposal to deal with all outstanding key issues which undermine relations between the two states. Among other things, Iran showed its readiness to ensure transparency in its nuclear program, support the disarmament of Hizbollah, and accept the two-state solution in the Arab-Israeli conflict, effectively recognizing the existence of Israel. In return, Iran expected the US to recognize its legitimate security interests in the region, lift the unilateral US sanctions –among them the ILSA Sanctions Act of 1996 – ensure guaranteed access to civilian nuclear technology, and withdraw the classification of Iran as a member of "the axis of evil."
It is not likely that in 2009 the Iranian offer, which was made six years ago, will be still on the table. The regional and international situation has changed fundamentally in favor of Iran. Over the past six years, the strategic environment has altered. The US has lost influence, power and credibility. Militarily, the US has failed to secure a real victory either in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Politically, the US has lost its credibility as a major power, and confidence and trust in the US has diminished among regional allies. Today, they anxiously watch the moves of the new American President Barack Obama, and wait, with deep concern, to see his actions in follow up to his promises.
At the same time, Iran has enhanced its strategic position and power. During the past six years, Iran has emerged as a key player in major issues and conflicts directly affecting US strategic interest. It has also emerged as a major player in Iraqi affairs having direct links to political and religious groups, and armed militias, which has placed Tehran in a unique position to influence future developments in Iraq. Iran has also emerged as a key player in Afghanistan. In other parts of the region, Iranian influence over the major non-state actors like Hizbollah and Hamas has increased. In short, Iran has secured an important position in all areas related to US security interests. Its help has become indispensable to the US.
Iranian strength derives and benefits from US weakness. The balance of power has changed in favor of Iran in every aspect and major developments have made the Iranian memorandum of 2003 outdated. From the Iranian standpoint, this memorandum can no longer serve as a starting point for negotiations. On the other hand, the ceiling for future Iranian demands for settlement could be much higher than before, corresponding with the new status of Iran. What will be offered to Mr. Obama in 2009 is going to be different from what was offered to Mr. Bush in 2003.
Yet, the 2003 memorandum is important as it is shows the issues that Iran considers negotiable and those which it does not. It demonstrates Iran’s rational decision-making that is based on the state's national interests rather than on principles. The memorandum underlined that Iranian policies are negotiable on a tactical level, given the right incentives. Iran might be persuaded to halt the support for Hizbollah or accept the Arab Peace Plan and the two-state solution if, in return, it is recognized as a "regional power,” allowed to go on with its nuclear program and have friendly relations with the US. Surely, Iran will avoid giving any substantial concessions on strategic issues or anything that would undermine its position as a regional power. This includes the development of the nuclear program which is an essential part of Iranian regional ambition. In fact, the stronger geopolitical position of Iran in 2009 will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the US to persuade Tehran to give up the nuclear program.
US hands are tied. In fact, the US may have to consider the possibility that Iran might be willing to negotiate most outstanding issues between the two states except one: the nuclear program. It may have to risk starting negotiations with Iran on some of the issues before, or even without, getting any meaningful concession on the nuclear program. Eventually, Mr. Obama will be forced to consider his priorities and options. Would the US settle for a bargain with Iran whereby Tehran would recognize Israel, stop its support to militant groups such Hizbollah, offer help in Iraq and Afghanistan, but keep its nuclear program? Or would Mr. Obama still keep military action against Iran as a serious option on the table? This will be a difficult decision to make for the new US administration. For some of the hardliners in Iran, however, it will not matter; abandoning nuclear enrichment is not an option. They believe that losing the nuclear program through an Israeli or US military strike would be less painful than losing it through political or economic pressure from the US, EU, or the UN.