President George W. Bush has succeeded in convincing
many of America's European allies to tighten sanctions against Iran to inhibit
its nuclear program. He has also reiterated that he prefers negotiations to
end the impasse with Tehran but that "all options" remain on the
table, a clear threat to use military force if all else fails.
One might well wonder what precisely Bush means when he refers to negotiations,
as none are underway involving the United States, and Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice has also asserted recently that there is no point in talking to Iran because
there is nothing to talk about. It might be churlish to suggest that an unwillingness
to engage in dialogue over issues that are being portrayed as vital to the
national interest can only lead to eventual resolution by force of arms, hardly
a desirable solution for anyone.
If Bush and Condi are wondering what to do about Iran, they might consider
an alternative to war. At present, Iran has few incentives to cooperate with
the United States over Iraq. The lack of any incentives has been exacerbated
by the warlike rhetoric coming out of Washington and the absence of anything
resembling an American policy toward the Islamic Republic or the region. It
is necessary to start with the assumption that the current Iraq policy is a
failure. The "surge" can only buy time for a political framework
to be constructed, something that has not happened and currently appears highly
unlikely given the high level of hostility between the Shi'ite militias and
the increasing distancing of the Sunnis from the central government. If Iraq
continues to ignore America's prodding to become a model democracy, then the
security provided by the surge of 158,000 troops has been little more than
a temporary success, if that.
It must also be conceded that the policy toward Iran has been a failure. There
has, in fact, been no U.S. policy to speak of, only allegations about Iranian
behavior leading to threats. There has been a series of uncoordinated responses
to developing situations but no comprehensive and realistic security strategy
for the entire region running from Lebanon in the West to Afghanistan in the
East, something urged by the recently dismissed Adm. William Fallon.
U.S. policy toward Iran must accept that Iran is a rational player driven
by self interest. It must deal with four fundamental questions: What does Iran
intend to do in Iraq? Does Iran seek to export its Islamic revolution? Will
Iran support the insurgency inside Iraq to entangle U.S. forces? Do Iran and
the U.S. have common interests in Iraq? Iran appears to have no real prospect
of being able to export its religious revolution to Iraq even if it wished
to do so. It clearly seeks a stable though politically weakened Iraq that will
not threaten it militarily and that will lead to the expeditious departure
of U.S. forces. Both Washington and Tehran want the same things for Iraq –
stability and predictability.
U.S. pressure on Tehran has been extremely counterproductive, aiding only the
conservatives who support hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new parliament
is also more supportive of confrontation in the foreign policy arena, though
its newly elected speaker Ali Larijani is believed to be amenable to compromise.
Iran meanwhile continues to expand a nuclear program that could ultimately
lead to the development of weapons while the U.S. lacks resources to respond
effectively. As Iran and Iraq should not be viewed in isolation, a new paradigm
for the entire region is essential.
The United States should have several strategic objectives relating to Iran
and Iraq, but it first must accept the principle of diplomatic engagement with
Iran based on no preconditions. This was the essential message of the bipartisan
Iraq Studies Group (ISG), a conclusion that was rejected by the Bush administration.
Currently, the United States does not actually talk to Iran. An Iranian proposal
to settle all outstanding problems was made through the Swiss embassy in 2003
but was rejected by the White House. It has been reported that Iran also signaled
its willingness to negotiate through its diplomats based in Afghanistan. President
Ahmadinejad has offered to discuss bilateral problems, but his approaches to
the Bush administration have been ridiculed.
Seeking a diplomatic solution is not to surrender on fundamental issues, nor
does it suggest that Iran should be given carte blanche, but the playing
field should start out even so reciprocal steps can then be taken to build
confidence and reduce tensions. There are serious issues that must be resolved,
including Iranian nuclear ambitions, the alleged interference in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and threats against neighboring Sunni Arab states and Israel. The U.S., for
its part, must satisfy Iranian security concerns and stake out a path that
will lead to Iran's becoming an accepted and unexceptional member of the world
community. The final objective of U.S.-Iran dialogue should be a normalization
of relations between the United States and Iran to permit negotiation and compromise
on all outstanding areas of disagreement, including the situation inside Iraq.
Establishing a new security framework for the Middle East that would reduce
tensions, eliminate regional threats, and guarantee an uninterrupted flow of
oil and gas would be major incentives for Washington. As the United States
is now militarily dominant in the region, it should feel empowered to take
the first steps, possibly by explicitly ending its threatening language and
giving security guarantees to Iran if it does not proceed with obtaining technical
mastery of the fuel cycle for its nuclear program. As experts believe that
control of the fuel cycle would permit easy development of weapons-grade isotopes,
it would be a key concession by Iran, and the security guarantee would be a
significant and commensurate offer by the United States.
Given the current state of Western anxiety about Tehran and its intentions
and Iranian concerns about the threat posed by the U.S., everything would have
to be based on reciprocal actions subject to detailed and intrusive bilateral
verification. Everything should be on the negotiating table, including Iranian
support of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, nuclear weapons programs, and the
scale of legitimate Iranian interaction with its neighbors, most notably Iraq
As a first step in attempting to shift the regional strategic balance, the
U.S. should support elements in Israel who are willing to engage with Syria to
normalize relations. Currently, the United States is blocking Israelis who
seek a negotiated solution with Syria, which Damascus reportedly is keen to
obtain. An agreement between Tel Aviv and Damascus underwritten by the United
States would end Syrian support for Hezbollah and Hamas and would also perforce
end the strategic relationship with Iran. It would, at a stroke, close the
overland route between Iran and Lebanon that permits militants to move across
country and obtain new supplies of weapons.
Without the Syrian and Lebanese nexus, Iran would continue to be a major regional
power, but its reach and ability to meddle would be much reduced. At that point,
the outstanding issues could be negotiated and hopefully resolved one by one,
recognizing that the United States' presence in the Middle East is a given
for the foreseeable future and that Iran is a regional power with legitimate
national interests. It is most important to realize that the United States
and Iran actually share an interest in doing whatever is necessary to help
bring about a stable Iraq. With normalized relations, American soft power could
have a major impact on Iran, which has a young population that is attracted
to Western culture and liberties.
While it is unrealistic to assume that Iran and the United States can resolve
all of their differences, it is equally unrealistic to assume that sustained
and serious negotiation will bear no fruit as the neoconservatives persistently
argue in their case against Tehran. Iran is, at the end of the day, like any
other nation. It is not suicidal, and it is responsive to the same needs and
priorities that drive any modern nation state. Recent opinion polls clearly
demonstrate that the Iranian people are far from anti-Western, quite the contrary.
Iran is resentful of its status as a pariah, which has been self-inflicted
by leaders like Ahmadinejad, and there is considerable evidence that many in
its political leadership would like to make it a more "normal" country.
It can only do so if the threat from Washington subsides. The United States
likewise, cast in the role of the school bully ever since the events of 9/11,
is sorely in need of a change of direction and a refurbishing of its image.
That change of direction could be signaled by a resolution of the issues dividing
Washington from Tehran, a troubled relationship that has been long viewed as
one of the most intractable in the world.