“Tales of 1001 Nights” (which, ironically enough, is not respected as fine literature in the Middle East itself) is the story of an ancient Persian king. In a fit of disillusioned anger, the king declares he will marry a new maiden every evening and execute her the next morning. He is thwarted when one bride distracts him with a story that never seems to end properly. The king is too eager to hear the story’s end to kill the storyteller, and his wife saves her life by telling an endless spiral of stories for 1,001 nights.
The land of Persia is now called Iran, and its nuclear negotiations with the West don’t look any more likely to end by the July 20 deadline than Princess Shaharazad’s stories were to end at daybreak. Iran has more than hinted at an extension of the planned six months of negotiations with Western powers in Vienna, reported Reuters.
Congressmen of both parties have been right to express skepticism about both prolonging talks without some good-faith assurances and the feasibility of monitoring Iran’s compliance with a hypothetical nuclear deal. As Iran forestalls the end of negotitations, it’s important to remember that at least some of Iran’s 80 million citizens have a rational self-interest for their religion-state that may not end at daybreak either.
This self-interest includes supporting Shias throughout the Middle East. There is no particular need for Americans to favor either side in the millenium-long struggle between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, but Iran is right to worry that without its protection, the Shiite minorities in the region will suffer persecution. This partly explains its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad and his kin in Syria, the Houthis of Yemen, and Maliki in Iraq.
Likewise, Iran’s presence at the bargaining table in Vienna reveals a healthy appetite for economic prosperity. The negotiators from the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany must take care not to assuage it by lifting too many sanctions prematurely.
We still wonder, of course, whether Iran’s long-term plan includes nuclear weapons. Ayatollah Khameini has issued a fatwa, which is a binding religious edict, that says building a nuclear weapon is against Islam. This may be one area where Iran’s mixing of politics and religion can help the Western negotiators. Kahmeini’s willingness to do so reflects the fact that such weapons are a means, not an end, to Iran’s ultimate plan for getting power. Iran wants to establish a Shiite “crescent” of influence more than its leaders want nuclear weapons capabilities.
Princess Shaharazad’s creation of 1,001 nights worth of entertainment was a deceit with the aim of self-preservation and power. In relations with Iran, we must not be so desperate to secure some success in the Middle East that we strike a nuclear deal without remembering that in her quest for economic safety and regional power, modern-day Persia may still have another 1,000 nights up her sleeve.