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
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
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
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)