News / Middle East

Column: ‘Valiant’ in Soccer, Can Iran Achieve Diplomatic Goals?

Iran's Reza Ghoochannejhad, right, scores against Bosnia during their match at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador, June 25, 2014.Iran's Reza Ghoochannejhad, right, scores against Bosnia during their match at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador, June 25, 2014.
x
Iran's Reza Ghoochannejhad, right, scores against Bosnia during their match at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador, June 25, 2014.
Iran's Reza Ghoochannejhad, right, scores against Bosnia during their match at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador, June 25, 2014.

With its 1-3 loss to Bosnia on Wednesday, Iran is out of the 2014 World Cup. But its gritty play won rare respect from an international community more accustomed to associating Iran with terrorism and a suspected quest for nuclear weapons.

Iranians all over the world, including staunch opponents of the Islamic regime, exuded pride as foreign commentators praised the team, which started World Cup play with a 0-0 draw with Nigeria, followed by a heart-stopping 0-1 loss to Argentina in a match that also appeared headed for a draw until the final minutes.

A New York Times commentator called Iran’s play against much higher rated Argentina “brilliant.”

 A British announcer for ESPN used the adjective “valiant” as did a Tweeter named Squawka Football who detailed Iran’s defensive play: “43 Clearances 17 Blocks 16 Tackles Won 9 Aerial Duels,” ending the tweet with “hats off IRN.”

As it happens, the World Cup – which is held every four years – coincides this year with Iran’s most important diplomatic competition: negotiating a long-term nuclear agreement with world powers that would trade verifiable curbs on its nuclear program for relief of crushing economic sanctions and allow Iranians to begin to return to the normal global citizenship denied them for over three decades.

Just as their soccer team exhibited impressive defensive capabilities, so too have Iran’s nuclear negotiators, led by a U.S.-educated and sophisticated foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Zarif, in a press conference last week in Vienna, took a tough stance, telling reporters, “We will not retreat from our [positions]… With the resistance of the Iranian nation, we are in good condition. We want to reach a conclusion, [and] at the same time protect the rights of the Iranian nation.”

However, success in the negotiations will require compromise on both sides and that includes a reduction of the number of centrifuges Iran is using to enrich uranium.

Currently Iran has about 19,000 centrifuges installed and about 10,000 operating. Non-proliferation experts including Robert Einhorn, a former U.S. negotiator with Iran, have suggested reducing that number to between 2,000 and 6,000 to ensure that Iran cannot quickly amass sufficient material for a nuclear weapon.

One possibility, put forward recently by a former Iranian official and a group of physicists at Princeton University, would gradually phase out Iran’s first generation centrifuges and substitute a smaller number of more sophisticated machines, with strict limits on the amount of low enriched uranium Iran could stockpile.

Iran has reportedly already agreed to concessions on several other key issues, such as modifying a heavy water reactor that will yield plutonium – another potential bomb fuel – and agreeing to stop enriching uranium on a major scale in an underground facility. Other key issues to be decided include the duration of an agreement and how to link Iran’s concessions with phased relief of U.S.-led economic sanctions.

A new publication by the Arms Control Association released today also sketches possible compromises.

Both U.S. and Iranian negotiators have compared a nuclear deal to a Rubik’s Cube: nothing is final until every piece is put into place.

Senior negotiators from Iran, the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) are due to reconvene in Vienna on July 2 and plan to stay there and keep trying to piece together the Rubik’s Cube by July 20, when an interim agreement signed last fall expires. 

A senior Obama administration official told reporters last week that diplomats and technical experts are already working every day to try to narrow differences and reach a historic conclusion.

“We have this week put together a working document that can provide a way forward in these negotiations,” the official said. “An enormous amount of work has gone into this by everyone – enormous. And we should maintain this level of intense and robust and serious diplomacy and give it every single chance to succeed.” 

Chances are that the talks will go to the last minute and into the diplomatic equivalent of overtime. Top figures, including the foreign ministers of the P5+1, are likely to enter the field for the final plays. Diplomatic reporters and other interested spectators from around the world have already booked their hotel rooms in Vienna for much of next month and are preparing themselves for long days and late nights.

Watching both the World Cup and the nuclear talks, I was reminded of a comment made to me some years ago by Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian American urban planner and adviser to the World Bank who was twice jailed by the regime for his liberal views.

The Islamic Republic, he said, was like a soccer team where talent is important, but not the most important qualification for membership. The theocratic owners of the team put restrictions on players that allow them to be relatively successful but not as good as they could be with different ownership and criteria for selection.

For most of the last 35 years, Iran has been underperforming as a country.

At times, it has defended itself valiantly – against Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and more recently, at the World Cup.

But if this ancient nation of 80 million is ever to achieve its true potential, it needs to reintegrate into the global community on more than just a football field. Hopefully, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei understands that his people urgently need success in Vienna even more than they did in Brazil.


Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Unpaid Kurdish Fighters Sign of Economic Woes

Sharp cuts in Kurdistan's budget by Baghdad, falling oil revenue, coping with refugees, inflated public sector have hit regional economy hard More

Koreas Exchange List of Envoys for Family Reunion Talks

Officials will discuss date, venue and number of participants for reunion; Seoul hopes to hold event late this month More

China Targets 197 in Online Speech Crackdown

Nearly 200 punished for 'spreading rumors' online in ongoing crackdown on free speech More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 02, 2015 6:19 PM
Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.

VOA Blogs