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November 17, 2008

Obama Advised to Forgo More Threats to Iran

by Jim Lobe

A strategy of threats and "provocations" against Iran by the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama is likely to be counterproductive, according to a new report released here Friday by a group of 20 former top U.S. diplomats and regional experts.

The group, co-chaired by former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering and James Dobbins, a top diplomatic troubleshooter under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, called instead for the new administration to "open the door to direct, unconditional, and comprehensive negotiations at the senior diplomatic level," as well as unofficial contacts and exchanges.

"Paradoxical as it may seem amid all the heated media rhetoric, sustained engagement is far more likely to strengthen United States national security at this stage than either escalation to war or continued efforts to threaten, intimidate, or coerce Iran," according to the group, which also assailed what it called eight "myths" propagated by neoconservatives and other hawks who have been pushing for greater pressure on Tehran to give in to western demands that it halt its nuclear program.

The "Joint Experts' Statement on Iran," the product of several months of internal discussions, comes amid growing speculation that the Bush administration will try to open a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran in the two months left in its tenure to help lay the groundwork for direct diplomatic engagement with Iran, which Obama promised during the presidential campaign.

It also comes amid intensified jockeying among various factions and individuals for key Middle East-related posts in the incoming administration. Ambassador Dennis Ross, an Obama adviser who led peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians during the Clinton years, is reportedly campaigning hard, with the backing of the so-called Israel Lobby, to be appointed as special envoy to Iran and the wider region.

Ross, who, along with several other hawkish Obama advisers, was a charter member of United Against Nuclear Iran, signed a recent report [.pdf] drafted by two prominent neoconservatives which argued that a deterrence would not work against a nuclear-capable Iran because of the "Islamic Republic's extremist ideology."

The report, sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, also argued that the new president should make clear from his first day in office that he was prepared to militarily attack Iran with force if, in the face of escalating U.S. and international pressure on Tehran, it did not give up enriching uranium on its soil.

During his campaign, Obama stated on several occasions that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons was "unacceptable" and that he would never take military options off the table to prevent it. He has also sponsored legislation to tighten economic sanctions against Iran and companies that do business with it.

At the same time, however, he has repeatedly stressed that he would engage Tehran diplomatically without preconditions, even at the presidential level. At least one adviser has suggested that Obama would offer "more carrots" – even as it seeks strong sanctions – as part of a bargaining process than the Bush administration has considered.

The "Experts' Statement," however, argues that a punitive sanctions approach, let alone a military attack, has been and is likely to continue to be counterproductive. "U.S. efforts to manage Iran through isolation, threats, and sanctions have been tried intermittently for more than two decades," according to the group, which was also co-chaired by Columbia University Prof. Gary Sick, who dealt with Iran on the National Security Council staff of former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.

"In that time they have not solved any major problem in U.S.-Iran relations, and have made most of them worse," it noted.

"Threats are not cowing Iran and the current regime in Tehran is not in imminent peril," it went on. "The United States needs to stop the provocations and take a long-term view with this regime, as it did with the Soviet Union and China."

The statement said retaining the threat of tougher sanctions if negotiations over Iran's nuclear program fail is justifiable, but that the nuclear issue should be raised as part of a broader U.S.-Iran opening and that would include "the credible prospect of security assurances and specific, tangible benefits such as the easing of U.S. sanctions in response to positive policy shifts in Iran."

The new administration should also appoint a special envoy both to deal "comprehensively and constructively with Iran (as opposed to trading accusations) and explore its willingness to work with the United States on issues of common concern," particularly "in shaping the future of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the region." It notes that the U.S. and Iran both support the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and face "common enemies" in Afghanistan in the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and drug traffickers.

Dobbins, Bush's special envoy for Afghanistan and currently director of the International Security program at the RAND Corporation, has repeatedly praised Iran's cooperation with U.S. efforts in ousting the Taliban and al-Qaeda after 9/11 and setting up the government of President Hamid Karzai there.

The statement also stressed that a "U.S. rapprochement with Iran, even an opening of talks, could help in dealing with Arab-Israeli issues," given Tehran's influence with Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The statement also addressed certain "myths" which it said had been used by U.S. hawks to discourage engagement, including the notion that the religious nature of the regime renders it undeterrable and that its leadership is implacably opposed to the United States and determined to "wipe Israel off the map."

Citing specific examples of Tehran's foreign policy pragmatism over past two decades, including its secret arms trade with Israel and active support for the U.S. in Afghanistan, the statement asserts that Iran's "recent history … makes crystal clear that national self-preservation and regional influence – not some quest for martyrdom in the service of Islam – is Iran's main foreign policy goal."

It also cited declarations by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Iran will not attack Israel unless it is attacked first and that "the day that relations with America prove beneficial for the Iranian nation, I will be the first one to approve of that."

While Iran's nuclear program gives "cause for deep concern," its specific intent – as a source of national pride, as a bargaining chip in broader negotiations with the U.S., as a deterrent against the U.S. or Israel, or as a weapon to support aggressive goals – remains murky, according to the statement.

"The only effective way to illuminate – and constructively alter – Iran's intentions is through skillful and careful diplomacy. History shows that sanctions alone are unlikely to succeed, and a strategy limited to escalating threats or attacking Iran is likely to backfire – creating or hardening a resolve to acquire nuclear weapons while inciting a backlash against us throughout the region," it said.

Besides the three co-chairs, the group's members included Emile Nakhleh, a retired senior CIA officer who served as director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program; Hadi Ghaemi, coordinator of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; and academic specialists on Iran, Shia Islam, and nuclear proliferation and technology.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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