Ask to wrong question and one is certain to arrive at the wrong conclusion.
So which came first? When the latest round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme ended in Vienna reports from both sides indicated that there had been no progress to speak of. Reactions to the failure of those talks were diverse, with some officials striving to maintain optimism in advance of the July 20 deadline for a final agreement, while others admit that that optimism has been overblown and that the deadline may need to be extended.
What appears to have been overlooked is the reality where, daily, the Human Rights of the ordinary people in Iran seem to have faded from the agenda. Whether it's the proverbial "chicken and egg" issue or Human Rights and Nuclear Controls, surely these matters are indivisible.
The most specific instances of Iranian refusal to cooperate come from no less important figures than Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, and members of his cabinet. Rouhani has explicitly rejected the idea of accepting any limits to Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities. He is encouraging the country to go ahead with plans to expand its supply of centrifuges, rather than reducing it. This means that the Iranian president is effectively pushing for a shorter nuclear breakout period, even while he continues to tell the press that a mutually favourable deal will probably be reached by July.
Meanwhile, Khamenei has similarly rejected Western attempts to reduce Iran's supply of ballistic missiles. Add to this the fact that the government has failed to explain its development of detonators for nuclear devices, and it's clear that the Iranian regime has little to no interest in proving that it won't continue to pursue its nuclear weapons programme once diplomacy has run its course.
Meanwhile it appears that the West is reticent about the plight of Iranian citizens - afraid of antagonising the Iranian regime as though today's outrages can be ignored for some mythical "greater good".
Public reactions to the negotiations are just as important as what is said during the negotiations themselves. The United States and the European Union would be well-served to take a broader view of the situation when assessing the prospects for talks with Iran over the long term.
This advice is significant to far more than just the nuclear issue. The specific subject of negotiations does not change the character of the negotiators. It only determines how high the stakes are, and thus what tactics those negotiators are willing to use to win an agreement. In its passion to secure a deal, the West seems to have focused all of its attention on sanctions and centrifuges, forgetting to temper its expectations with a healthy understanding of just who they have been dealing with.
The Iranian regime's response to stalled discussions goes a long way towards reminding the world of the character of that regime. It is a regime that doesn't think twice about throwing its weight around in the Middle East, whether that means threatening its neighbours, manipulating them into unbalanced trade agreements, smuggling arms to other dictatorial regimes, or actively supporting terrorist groups that help to destabilise Iran's rivals or give unlawful support to its allies in the region.
A long, hard look at Iran's domestic policies helps to complete the picture. During the time that the United States has been negotiating with its current leaders, Iran's execution rate has risen to levels unprecedented by the last 25 years of its history. Multiple newspapers have been shuttered since President Rouhani took office, and internet censorship continues to run rampant. Meanwhile, those who are bold enough to defy these restrictions or speak out politically are often subject to imprisonment and torture.
Millions of Iranians have fled their home country because of this repression and because of their political affiliations. Most of them are also still committed to seeing freedom and democracy flourish there. Many of these individuals and supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran led by the charismatic opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, will come together in Paris on June 27 to have the broad-ranging discussion that has been missing from Western-led nuclear talks.
Those Iranian exiles and activists will be joined by hundreds of dignitaries and legislators from the free nations of the world, united to remind foreign observers of the reason why Iran was brought to the negotiating table in the first place.
Everyone agrees that a nuclear Iran is intolerably dangerous. But the world understands this because it also knows that Iran is a dangerous destabilising force in the Middle East regardless of what types of weapons it possesses. The relevant issue at nuclear negotiations isn't just what Iran's current breakout period is; it's got to be about how vigorously the West works to create and sustain a basis whereby the people of Iran are freed from tyranny.
That latter question isn't answered just by how the negotiators act when talking to their adversaries face-to-face. It certainly isn't answered by Western wishful thinking, either. The world has to be sure that it can trust Iran to negotiate in good faith and to abide by the terms of any agreement that happens to be reached. But as political prisoners inside of Iran and exiles outside it should surely remind one that it's impossible to extend that kind of trust to a nation that habitually uses repression and terrorism to maintain its tenuous hold on domestic and regional power.
Thus, the only practical and sensible policy towards Iran is one that looks past the negotiating table in order to understand and address the fact that the regime's overall abuses are the root cause of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Consequently, if the International Community wants to do anything other than kick the ball into touch, the issue that has to be addressed, must be how to build on a bedrock of Human Rights.
Ignoring the devious humbug from Vienna, perhaps Paris on June 27 might just be the right place from which to set the principles necessary to re-start with a new, humane and more realistic policy on Iran.