Hillary Mann-Leverett, in FP, here
Direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations in Geneva and Vienna this month over Iran's nuclear program demonstrate something very positive about the prospects for U.S. diplomacy with Iran: When given the chance to engage directly with the United States, Iran will take that chance and pursue negotiations in an active and constructive way.
This does not mean that Iran will automatically give the United States what it wants. But it does mean that Iran will approach negotiations with the United States in a rational manner grounded in Iranian national security interests. This should not come as a surprise: It is how Iran has approached previous episodes of engagement with the United States -- including two years of extremely constructive official talks between the U.S. and Iran over Afghanistan and al Qaeda, following the 9/11 attacks (talks in which I directly participated).
Now that Tehran has asked for an extension of the deadline for its response to a proposal to ship most of Iran's low enriched uranium out of the country for fabrication into fuel rods, it is important to remember Tehran's history of pragmatic cooperation and avoid distorting events or overreacting.
Many commentators in the United States and Israel are attributing the delay to political divisions in Tehran stemming from the June 12 presidential election. Others are describing the delay as "typical" Iranian negotiating behavior: like rug merchants haggling in the bazaar. But these characterizations are misleading.
Iran had originally proposed to refuel the Tehran research reactor through purchasing fuel assemblies from international providers, including the United States -- in fact, involving the United States was Iran's idea of a confidence-building measure. There was a clear consensus within the Iranian leadership in support of this proposal, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking about it publicly.
The United States responded with interest to Iran's initiative but proposed, instead, that Iran ship most of Iran's low enriched uranium stockpile outside the country for fabrication into fuel rods for the reactor in question. This proposed deal meets Iran's need for fuel at the Tehran research reactor but would also address, at least in the short run, international concerns about Tehran's accumulation of fissile material.
In some respects this might be a good deal from an Iranian perspective, and Tehran may yet agree to it. However, there are two potential flaws. First, Iran's experience of prior cooperation with international actors on its nuclear program has been disappointing. During the 1970s, Iran invested more than $1 billion to build a French reactor which was contractually supposed to guarantee Iran access to that reactor's fuel. But, when the Islamic Republic was established, France reneged. (Khomeini 'triggered' his revolution from a French suburb!) Now Iran is being called on to trust France, again, to return its fuel.
Second, at Iran's current production rate for low enriched uranium, it would take Tehran nine to 12 months to replenish the uranium that would be sent out of the country under this deal. For serious national security planners in Tehran, whether they like Ahmadinejad or not, this is potentially problematic as it leaves almost a year's window of increased vulnerability to an Israeli or U.S. military attack. In Tehran, views are split, and it has nothing to do with reformists vs. hardliners, or the pro-Ahmadinejad camp vs. the anti-Ahmadinejad camp. It has to do with lack of confidence about U.S. and Israeli intentions toward the Islamic Republic as it is constituted, rather than as we wish it to be.