Can the United States forge a mutually constructive relationship with Iran?
Can a global superpower find a way to persuade a recalcitrant and paranoid regional power to enter the community of nations as a responsible participant?
For 30 years, both America and Iran have answered those questions with a resounding no. The United States has historically taken a coercive approach, which has only driven Iran further into petulant isolation.
The Obama presidency promised a different strategy. Rather than indulging in extravagant Axis-of-Evil invective, which even the outgoing Bush administration had come to regard as counter-productive, the United States would cool the rhetoric and extend a hand.
That policy was only four months old in June, when Iran descended into its most excruciating domestic crisis since the civil war in the early 1980s.
The resulting loss of legitimacy by the ruling elites and their utter preoccupation with their own survival meant that foreign policy decisions – always difficult at best – were now subject to a new set of internal dynamics and uncertainties.
Despite these new complications, Iran’s national security leadership accepted and even promoted an agreement with the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) for a swap of nuclear material.
Iran would relinquish a sizable proportion of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), which would be further enriched by Russia and then fashioned into fuel cells by France to supply the Tehran Research Reactor. Both sides regarded this as a win-win agreement and an important step towards further negotiations.
But the proposal met a chorus of disapproval from Iran’s parliament and even the “Green” opposition, who argued that Iran should not give up a “national asset” – the uranium – without absolute assurances that the P5+1 would fulfill their end of the bargain. Iran’s leaders were forced to propose an alternative arrangement: that the swap take place inside Iran.