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Will Progress On Nuke Talks Mean More Engagement From Iran?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Nov. 24 in Geneva, after the announcement of a deal halting parts of Iran's nuclear program.
Fabrice Coffrini
AFP/Getty Images
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Nov. 24 in Geneva, after the announcement of a deal halting parts of Iran's nuclear program.

The U.S. and other major powers have been holding historic negotiations with Iran to try to curb that country's nuclear program. But Washington still has many other concerns about Iranian behavior. And while some diplomats may hope to build on the nuclear talks to push Iran to play a more constructive role in the region, experts remain skeptical.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says there are a couple of ways to look at the negotiations with Iran.

"Greater nuclear cooperation with Tehran could bring about greater regional cooperation with Iran," he says. "But there's also the counterargument that now that Iran's sense of economic urgency has decreased, the sanctions have decreased, Iran will have even less impetus to cooperate with the United States."

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute falls into that latter camp.

"It would be way too optimistic to assume that just because there's a diplomatic process on the nuclear issue that suddenly we may see a moderation of Iranian behavior on other issues," he says. "In fact, it's oftentimes quite the opposite."

Avoid Seeming Desperate For Deal

Rubin is author of the forthcoming book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes. He says U.S. diplomats tend to do whatever they can to preserve negotiations, even if it means looking the other way when their negotiating partner acts up.

"We've seen this with North Korea. We've seen this with Moammar Gadhafi in Libya," Rubin says. "We've certainly seen this with the Taliban as well."

When it comes to Iran, Rubin thinks the best strategy would be to keep up the pressure and not appear too desperate for a deal.

"And even though we may loathe to do it, we have to convince the Iranians that if they don't play ball, we are going to walk away from the table and that they will have something worse to come," he says.

Obama administration officials are urging Congress not to vote on any new sanctions on Iran and give negotiators room to see if they can turn an interim deal that rolls back parts of Iran's nuclear program into something more comprehensive.

Haleh Esfandiari, who directs the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, thinks it's wise to stay focused.

"Neither side seems inclined to extend the nuclear negotiations to a serious discussion about other issues in the region," she says.

Limits To What U.S. Can Change

Human-rights activists fear their issues will be ignored. But Esfandiari, who was jailed in Iran for several months in 2007, believes the U.S. will find a way to make its concerns known as nuclear talks continue.

"Make sure the Iranians know that human-rights issues will be on the table, are on the table, and there is a concern in the United States, first of all, for those Iranian-Americans who are still in jail, and secondly, for political prisoners," she says.

Esfandiari also knows the limits of America's ability to change Iranian behavior. As Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment points out, Iran's foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has a narrow mandate.

"Foreign Minister Zarif doesn't control a lot of the most important files which America is concerned about, whether that's Iran's role in Syria, its role in Iraq, its support for Hezbollah," Sadjadpour says. "These are not files controlled by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, but [by] the Iranian Revolutionary Guards."

And Esfandiari says the Revolutionary Guards won't easily give up on their investments in the Syrian regime or in Hezbollah.

"There are the hard-line factions that remain highly suspicious ... of the West and are still committed to the revolutionary principles of 35 years ago, standing up to America, and ... the hostility to the very existence of Israel," she says.

Successful nuclear negotiations could strengthen the hand of the pragmatists in Iran, Esfandiari says, but she adds that it's way too early to tell.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.