After an eight-year struggle over whether to engage Iran, the United States may finally be on the verge of launching a direct dialogue with its perennial Middle Eastern adversary. Washington has a long list of grievances to discuss, from sponsoring terrorism to the nuclear issue. The success of any talks will hinge on a critical unknown: What does Iran want? Today, an ascendant Iran views negotiations with the United States as a means of consolidating its gains and achieving American recognition of its regional status.
As part of its negotiating strategy, Iran will insist on comprehensive talks. Tehran will want to cover not just its contested nuclear program but also developments in Iraq, the conflicts of the Levant and a prospective Persian Gulf security system. To the Islamic Republic, such a broad-based platform would have the advantage of prolonging the process while signaling to its Arab competitors that the United States acknowledges Iranian centrality in stabilizing the Middle East. As a state with pretensions of preeminence, Iran will maintain that none of the region's conflicts can be resolved without its participation and consent.
The shadow of Iran's nuclear program will loom large in any discussion. During the Bush years, Tehran made significant nuclear advances and now possesses a sophisticated infrastructure with a growing enrichment capability. Iran will view any negotiations as a means of gaining American approbation for its existing nuclear status. Having been censured by four U.N. resolutions, Tehran hopes that talks with the United States will grant its nuclear program a degree of legitimacy, if not legality. In exchange, the Iranians may be amenable to offering confidence-building measures such as an enhanced inspection regime. Its desired endpoint is a nuclear program that enjoys grudging American, and thus international, approval.