More than three decades ago this month, the shah of Iran was overthrown, and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ushered in a Shiite theocracy. Nine months later, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 hostages, holding them for 444 days. We've been in a quasi-war with Iran ever since.
Last year's blockbuster movie, "Argo," brought it all back. Now, the stakes have risen as Iran pursues nuclear technology and the United States presses the international community to impose ever-harsher sanctions.
Iran insists that it has a right to pursue nuclear energy and will not give greater access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors until that right is acknowledged. The United States insists that a nuclear-armed Iran would lead to a new arms race in the Middle East – with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan likely to ramp up nuclear programs.
The question is whether the two countries can break out of their history of distrust to make the volatile Middle East region more stable and avoid a "nuclear proliferation cascade."
An opening comes Tuesday, with a new round of so-called P5+1 talks. Iran has been meeting on-and-off with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China), plus Germany, since 2006.
The idea was to launch a "fresh start" to negotiate a "comprehensive agreement" with Iran that would establish "international confidence" that Iran's nuclear program would be "exclusively peaceful." In six rounds of negotiations over the last six years, talks have foundered on the issue of whether Iran should be allowed to enrich and reprocess uranium.
The P5+1 group has pursued a dual track – Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions, while continuing negotiations.
The timing may be right for a new opening. We are in a lull after the U.S. and Israeli elections – with a thankful end to bellicose posturing on Iran – and before the Iranian presidential election in June.
Oil vs. nuclear energy
Why would an oil-rich country seek nuclear energy? The short answer is that Iran gets the bulk of its revenue from oil exports. Production is falling and domestic consumption is increasing. Iran argues that it needs nuclear power to preserve oil for export.
Exports already had dropped from more than 5 million barrels a day in 1975 to 2.2 million in 2010. The latest sanctions have hit hard, dropping exports to 860,000 barrels per day last September. Experts expect exports to hover around 1 million barrels per day in 2013.
In the 1970s, the United States was prepared to sell nuclear reactors to Iran and an April 1975 document called for nuclear cooperation to "provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals."
But, as today, the United States worried about Iran's desire to enrich uranium and sought special controls – fearing in the case of government collapse that "domestic dissidents or foreign terrorists" – or an "aggressive successor" – might seize nuclear material "for use in bombs."
Iran recently has been sending mixed signals about its intentions. On the plus side, it has been downgrading some of its uranium stockpile to use in its reactor producing medical isotopes for cancer treatment. On the negative side, it has announced plans to install more advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium faster. It has yet to reach a deal on IAEA inspections of its facility at Parchin.
Iran ranks very low in per capita military spending: $89 compared to $1,558 in Saudi Arabia and $1,882 in Israel. Its conventional military is weak.
The issue is Iran's enrichment and stockpiling of nuclear fuel. Civilian nuclear reactors typically use 3.5 percent to 5 percent enriched uranium. Iran has been producing that grade – but, more disturbing, it began producing 20 percent enriched uranium in 2010. It wouldn't take long – a few months to a year – to enrich the stockpile to the 90 percent level needed to produce a bomb.
Former U.S. Ambassador William Luers, director of The Iran Project, told me, "If Iran decides tomorrow that it wants to go for a bomb and go up to weapons-grade enrichment, the International Atomic Energy Agency would know within a week." It has monitoring instruments on every centrifuge and Iran "has no clandestine facility significant enough and large enough to get to weapons grade."
The United States is right to insist that Iran limit enrichment of uranium to lower than 5 percent, the level needed for energy production – and halt production of 20 percent enriched uranium, shipping that stockpile out of the country.
Not surprisingly, Iranians are wary of anything that whiffs of foreign interference – a legacy of events in the 20th century. The shah was overthrown in 1979 in large part because he was seen as a foreign puppet.
Iranians hear "regime change" coming from different quarters in the United States – though it is not U.S. policy – and they read events through that lens.
One thing successive regimes have done is to expand the middle class. Iranians are educated and cosmopolitan. But the government routinely blocks access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media. Bazaar merchants, who tend to be conservative, have supported big changes – in 1906 and 1979 – if they see the government hampering their bottom line. They went on strike last October as Iran's currency plummeted.
More than half of the Iranian population was born after the 1979 revolution, a doubled-edged sword. They know only the rule of the clerics. But they have no stake in endlessly regurgitating a past they didn't experience.
Clearly, the catalog of grievances runs deep for both countries.
The issue is how to end what military historian David Crist has called a 30-year "twilight war" that has "hardened both sides."
Who takes the first step to break the stalemate? Robert Jervis, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the two sides so far have offered "little more than recitations of unyielding opening positions." He suggests "using disavowable third parties who can float enticing ideas without exposing actual negotiating positions."
He believes that it is too late for small, "confidence-building" measures and urges something dramatic.
Hey, why not put an appropriately safeguarded Iranian civilian nuclear program on the table – and revive the U.S. idea from 1974 for establishing multilateral enrichment and reprocessing facilities?
If the latest P5+1 talks stall, you can be sure that war rhetoric will ramp back up again.
TURNING POINTS IN IRAN
1906 The Constitutional Revolution places power in the hands of a prime minister, chosen by parliament and appointed by the king. A committee of five clerics could veto laws at variance with Islam.
1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement divides Iran into a Russian zone in the north and a British zone in the south.
1908 Oil is discovered.
1941 Great Britain and the Soviet Union occupy Iran and force out Reza Khan, the shah. His son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, takes his place.
1943 Tehran Conference. The United States presses Britain and the Soviet Union to leave Iran after World War II and pledge to maintain "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran."
1953 A U.S.-led coup topples the Iranian prime minister, consolidating power of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
1975 The shah cancels elections and abolishes political parties.
1979 Students seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4 and hold 52 Americans hostage.
1980 Iraq invades Iran in September. The United States sides with Iraq.
1981 The Algiers Accords, brokered by Algeria, end the Iran hostage crisis. The United States agrees "not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."
1982 Israel invades Lebanon, sparking a new Iranian-supported Lebanese Shiite group, Hezbollah.
1983-84 With U.S. Marines in Lebanon as peacekeepers, Hezbollah bombs the U.S. Embassy in April, the Marine barracks in October and a new U.S. Embassy the following September.
1988 The USS Vincennes, protecting shipping in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, accidentally shoots down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 passengers.
1995 House Speaker Newt Gingrich includes funds for covert action by the CIA to overthrow the Iranian regime; the Clinton administration settles on language to "change the behavior" of the Iranian government.