In late 2015, riding the high of the soon-to-be-implemented nuclear agreement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani planned several state visits to European capitals. He was courting foreign investment to revitalize his country’s sputtering economy and wanted to take advantage of Iranian cache abroad.
But when arrangements for the visits were being drawn up, the Iranians had a demand. There was to be no alcohol at the official state meal hosted by French President Francois Hollande. Keeping pork off the menu could be accommodated to conform to Halal rules, but asking French hosts not to serve wine was a cultural red line.
The visit was postponed because of the Paris terrorist attacks. But when the trip happened two months later, the state dinner was downgraded to a snack.
Perhaps not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it was a telling incident that should have been a reality check for Iranian officials. Their rigid intolerance backfired, offering an important reminder that beyond the borders of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s representatives don’t get to call the shots.
As talks resume in Vienna to revive the moribund deal — just as Iran continues to expand its nuclear activities and waste negotiators’ time — the wine episode is worth remembering.
The United States has mostly shielded itself from these kinds of awkward but close interactions with Iranian officialdom because it doesn’t have any direct relations with them. Since early in the Trump administration, that’s meant no contact at all between officials representing Washington and Tehran.
Instead, though, they have to attend to the fears and demands of our allies in Israel and among the Arab monarchies in the Gulf region. Although it’s become painfully obvious that Israeli and Saudi priorities are not always in our national interest, that orientation has skewed our own understanding of the Iranian threat.
But the Biden administration still believes it can solve the Iranian nuclear problem. And for good reason. These same people did it once already, and if the Islamic Republic of Iran is ultimately unwilling to agree to a mutual return to compliance, so be it. We’ll just sanction them more. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll bomb them — it’s the same old line.
Since 1979, we’ve been told that the enmity that persists between the United States and Iran is based in mistrust. But that’s not the whole story. It’s about a shared ignorance of the other, a lack of self-awareness about that self-inflicted ignorance, and the mutual hubris in Tehran and Washington that these blind spots have long incubated.
Getting Iran wrong isn’t a Trump failing or a Biden weakness: It’s ultimately a Washington problem.
While administration officials debate their next move, many in the Iranian political establishment see simply getting the world’s biggest powers to engage in a protracted negotiation as a victory. In fact, what smaller thug-doms have always admired most about the Islamic Republic of Iran is its ability to get world powers to notice it. But the ability to waste time should never be confused with being taken seriously.
The truth is that the fervor over Iran’s nuclear program has always been a manufactured crisis. And the problem with those is that they sometimes spiral into self-fulfilling prophecies. The Iranian nuclear program that was constrained by the 2015 deal with the most stringent measures available was abandoned and replaced with literally no guardrails.
So the Iranians could then be forgiven for convincing themselves that they’re in the driver’s seat in these negotiations. It wouldn’t be the first embarrassing incident in which Iranian authorities mistakenly overestimated their standing.
That lack of self-awareness, unfortunately, is not confined to the halls of power in Tehran.
European officials I’ve spoken with this month point to a myopic understanding of Iran by U.S. officials, that while being both annoying and infuriating, is also very dangerous.
For better or worse, Europeans have chosen to deal with the Iranians directly, so they have a deeper understanding of Tehran’s strengths and weaknesses and most critically, its needs.
For the one quality binding Iran and the U.S. are each government’s sense of exceptionalism. While that hubris has ebbed and flowed, at the moment the ignorance of the other that has been the hallmark of the non-relationship appears to be driving us closer to open conflict than ever before.
Four decades of ignorance have led us to this standoff and the opportunities for breakthrough now appear slimmer than ever.