Talks last week between Iran and world powers in Geneva—and the first public, bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran in 30 years—yielded unexpected progress. Iran has been forced onto the defensive by its loss of legitimacy, exacerbated by the gains President Obama made by demonstrating resolve to negotiate a peaceful accommodation with the Islamic Republic, contends George Perkovich.

Perkovich explains that the Iranian government is determined to be seen acting within international law, in order to defend the government’s legitimacy at home and to ward off international sanctions or the use of force. Getting caught on the wrong side of the law in building the Qom nuclear facility endangers the government’s legitimacy and adds to the international legitimacy President Obama has gained. The United States and other powers negotiating with Iran should press Iran to accept legally precise definitions of what are peaceful nuclear activities and what are not.

Key Conclusions

  • The revelation of the Qom enrichment facility endangered a winning Iranian strategy and angered many within and outside Iran who gave Tehran the benefit of the doubt.
  • Obama’s willingness to negotiate with the Iranian regime—even as critics within the United States urged a tougher stance following Iran’s disputed elections and subsequent repression—put pressure on Tehran and helped bring them to the table.
  • Tehran’s violation of international law will undermine the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at home and could magnify his domestic challenges.
  • International rules are key to maintaining pressure on Iran and developing an enforceable agreement that will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

“Iranian leaders are caught between the law and a hard place,” writes Perkovich.” Either they negotiate back into compliance with the rules and restore international confidence, or they abandon any pretense of being law-abiding members of the international community and accept the risks of being known to seek nuclear weapons.”