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

    US Lawmakers Vow to Continue Immigrant Program for Afghan Interpreters

    Congressional inaction threatens funding for effort which began in 2008 and has allowed more than 20,000 interpreters, their family members to immigrate to US

    Leaderless, Rudderless, Britain Drifts

    Experts predicted chaos would follow, if Britain decided to vote for Brexit, and chaos has

    US to Train Cambodian Government on Combating Cybercrime

    Concerns raised over drafting of law, as critics fear cybercrime regulations could be used to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roari
    X
    June 28, 2016 10:33 AM
    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora