The crux of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran is that, at some point, in order to succeed, each side will have to take a deep breath and shake hands on a deal. But thirty years of mutual demonization and fear mongering, means it takes serious political courage to come to the table, and even more courage—and a major investment of political capital—to actually accept a deal and sell it at home.
One way each side builds such political capital is to spin the talks as favoring the home team. This zero-sum approach—building capital at the expense of the other side—is dangerous and can create a precarious back and forth.
After modest success in Istanbul this past weekend, we’re seeing this back and forth play out as the sides prepare for the next round of talks in five weeks in Baghdad. Tehran has portrayed Washington as having softened its position and backed down from previous demands—particularly on the issue of whether Iran has the right to enrichment.
As Robert Wright speculates in the Atlantic, “If Iran’s leadership thinks it may do a deal with a government it has long framed as the great Satan, it needs to tell the Iranian people that it’s bringing Satan to his knees.” He points out that, as Tehran spins one way to build domestic support and to perhaps insulate the negotiations from political backlash at home, the opposite happens among opportunists in the U.S.
The Washington Times, for instance, takes Fars News at its word that the U.S. is granting Iran concessions, seizing on Tehran’s domestic spin to attack the talks. The very same groups that dismiss positive news like Khamenei’s fatwah against nuclear weapons as religious dissembling are, ironically, the most eager to treat Iran’s anti-U.S. spin as gospel–so long as it can be used to attack the Obama Administration’s diplomacy.
For its part, the U.S. is doing the exact same kind of spinning. In Haaretz yesterday, an unnamed U.S. official pushed back against criticism from Bibi Netanyahu that the Istanbul talks were a “freebie” for Tehran. Such an attack from Netanyahu–delivered with Senator Joe Lieberman at the Prime Minister’s side–is politically damaging for the White House and for the talks. Bibi may not technically be a domestic political opponent of the President, but nobody has bothered telling that to Congress.
So, the U.S. and European officials spin Haaretz, essentially saying they manhandled Iran:
“The senior U.S. official emphasized that an agreement is in place between the six world powers that even if Iran carries out trust-building steps and suspends uranium enrichment to 20 percent, it will not receive anything in return.”
Not exactly a face saving proposition for the Iranians. The report continues:
“He added that it was made clear to the Iranians in these discussions that there would be no suspension of sanctions on the part of the United States and the European Union, nor would there be a postponement of the European oil embargo, which will come into effect on July 1.”
Political interests inside of Iran could very well employ the same opportunism as the Washington Times and seize on these “official” comments to attack the talks.
We saw this happen during the October 2009 diplomatic dance, when Iran agreed to a confidence building deal with the U.S. and others in principle, but then backed away when the deal was attacked by Ahmadinejad’s political opponents of all stripes in Iran.
One of the reasons ultimately cited by Tehran for scuttling the deal was the way the agreement was portrayed in Western media outlets. Officials suggested it was a major coup for the U.S. at Iran’s expense. The Iranians implied they could not sell such an agreement once it was perceived as being so unbalanced against Iran—no matter how appealing it may have initially looked on paper.
This time around however, there is the apparent imprimatur of the Supreme Leader for continued negotiations. For Iran, this represents the strongest form of “political capital” to insulate the talks, for the time being.
But there is a long road ahead, and many issues to address—including not just nukes, but the even more difficult challenge of addressing Iran’s human rights situation. If the two sides are able to get through the initial bumps on this long road, and establish a true diplomatic process that is insulated from domestic politics, there is hope the talks can be broadened and sustained to achieve tangible success. But if not—if the two sides are unable to build positive sum political space and the mutual spin becomes a vicious cycle—the negotiations could easily spin into failure.