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The Daily Star - October 10, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

The sudden positive expectations surrounding the resumption of direct high-level contacts between the U.S. and Iran will soon lead to meaningful negotiations. This reality reflects concrete and politically substantive developments, not wishful thinking, by both sides: the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president, and the explicit backing he has received from the highest levels of the Iranian government for negotiations based on verifiably limiting the degree and amount of Iran’s enriched uranium; and, the two important American government concessions of a willingness to accept Iranian uranium enrichment with safeguards that prevent the development of a nuclear weapon, and a clear position that the U.S. is not working to overthrow the Iranian regime (as it recently admitted it did in 1953).

This positive new environment reflects the most important principle that must pertain for these happy feelers to blossom into successful negotiations. That principle comprises the two “Rs” that must anchor any successful negotiations: Respect and Reciprocity. It is crucial that all parties understand and affirm this principle in action.

There will be temptations to slip back into the failed old ways of cantankerous and immature men. It is emotionally tempting but not very useful politically for supporters of both sides to claim that the other side capitulated to their unilateral demands, or that military threats triggered this outcome.

A debate on whether the harsh sanctions against Iran were instrumental in bringing us to this point is equally frivolous, as is the technical discussion of whether or not the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency formally “permits” any country to enrich uranium for nonmilitary purposes. These were the debating points of gladiators who did not want to negotiate and preferred confrontation. They no longer serve a purpose as we turn this historic corner.

In the heartening new era of exploratory but substantive diplomacy that we enter, both sides have expressed the desire to resolve their outstanding issues through speedy and serious negotiations. It is more than useful, it is imperative, that we recall how the main actors changed rather suddenly from their catastrophic path of confrontation, threats, assassinations and defiance to a much more sensible track based on identifying and then systematically resolving the political issues that separated them. That happened when each side made goodwill gestures toward the other, and then followed up by clarifying or proposing new broad elements of their key positions that opened the door for movement to resolve their disagreements.

For starters, Iran can enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, inspections and limitations on Iran’s nuclear industry will verify this, and the U.S. and Israel will not attack Iran or undermine its governance system. Neither side capitulated fully; both sides gave something the other demanded; and all parties to the dispute gained something meaningful. They did this more or less simultaneously, and reciprocated the respect that each had shown the other.

I have been following this from the United States for the past 10 days and still find the general positive change in attitudes to Iran handcuffed by two potentially fatal flaws. The first is the overwhelming reality that almost every statement one hears or reads on Iran in the U.S. is couched in terms of wanting to test Iran’s inherent, structural deception and delinquency as a negotiating partner. Iran has been judged in American eyes and found persistently guilty of repeatedly cheating and lying to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons with which to dominate the Middle East and attack Israel.

Americans say they will test the diplomatic waters in order to find out if Rouhani is genuine in his overtures to negotiate, because in fact he may be lying and acting like a typically devious wily old bearded Persian hegemonic terrorist cleric.

Washington sees itself negotiating with a delinquent and a miscreant, not a sovereign country that enjoys the same rights as the U.S. does.

The second problem in the American approach to negotiating with Iran that could derail the whole process is that it still deals with Tehran primarily through the lens of nuclear enrichment. Iran has other important demands, such as not being subjected to regime change or to double standards in global nuclear enrichment, sanctioned without sufficient evidence or even a legitimate trial, bludgeoned into marginalization in the Middle East, or treated like a deviant criminal that only understands the language of force. The U.S. now understands some of these issues, but not all of them.

Let us hope that both sides quickly grasp the centrality of respect and reciprocity as the guiding formula for a win-win outcome of negotiations. They quickly brought us to this point, so we should ride them to a historic, mutually beneficial, conclusion.

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