Achieving détente with Iran

By John Tirman | July 2, 2009

The apparently fraudulent Iranian presidential election and the domestic unrest have presented President Barack Obama with a problem. Since his own election, Obama slowly has tried to open a diplomatic path to Iran, which, while scarcely consistent or imaginative, had the potential to be productive. However, because of its violent response to the protests that followed the election and the election fraud itself, Iran’s current leadership lacks both moral and political legitimacy, making bold U.S. diplomacy difficult. Furthermore, politics in both countries may prevent cooperative action for months, if not years.

Regardless of the present situation, in the long run, détente is good for both regional security and the Iranian people and should be considered a “win-win” strategy once the current crisis is settled. That shifts the questions for U.S. policy makers to how détente can be pursued without appearing to dismiss the democratic opposition in Iran and what diplomacy can yield.

Unfortunately, as governments throughout the world and Middle East watch the protests in Tehran, doubts about the regime’s ability to deal honestly with the international community grow and Iran’s fiercest opponents are strengthened. Even before the election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the Oval Office decrying Tehran’s nuclear program and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and demanding that Washington get tough with Iran. After the election, he called the Islamic Republic the “greatest threat” to peace with “its violent and aggressive behavior.” Similarly, pro-Israel groups in the United States are lobbying for new sanctions on Iran, more coercion, and increased encirclement. Of course, they aren’t alone. The outrage over the conduct of the election and Tehran’s repression of dissent has gripped much of the Middle East, Europe, the United States, and beyond.

In Iran, with the exact contours of governance still contested, the possibility of a genuine rapprochement with Washington is unknown. Some knowledgeable observers see the crisis as another step in the Revolutionary Guard’s gradual, but steady, encroachment on the power of the clerics. If this trend persists (and it seems likely) then the door may not be open to U.S. overtures. Others see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as weakened and therefore, in need of a diplomatic win to reestablish their political standing.

The conventional wisdom in Washington, apart from cheap shots at Obama’s rhetorical restraint, is that the United States must continue to engage Iran, primarily because the nuclear issue is so pressing. Tehran’s steady progress at enriching uranium and its overt hostility toward Israel place its nuclear development atop the U.S. agenda. Claims that the Persian Gulf states and other Mideast countries fear a powerful Iran only serve as reinforcement to that end.

That said, it’s difficult to imagine that negotiations on the nuclear issue could commence in the current flux. After all, Iranians are united on the nuclear program, at least the acknowledged civilian program, so room to maneuver will continue to be constricted no matter who is in power. The broadly accepted view, which the “reformists” also hold, is that Iran shouldn’t be subject to restraints. Thus, if the nuclear issue is the first item on the agenda, distrust and recrimination will be high while the political space for compromise is suffocated by domestic politics. If premature talks go poorly, years of diplomatic capital could be wasted. Among the consequences could be an Israeli-instigated war–not an outlandish outcome since Israel has vowed military action for several months now.

Undoubtedly, a failed negotiation attempt, or no negotiation attempt at all, also would spur calls for tougher U.S. action. But here, context is necessary. The 30-year U.S. policy toward Iran–by no means weak–has been a resounding failure. Coercion, sanctions, disparagement, containment, covert action, military threats, support for adversaries–all have failed to dent the Islamic Republic. For example, the economic pain suffered by Iranians ranges from 1-2 percent of gross domestic product annually, with most estimates at the lower end of that range–a low number resulting in minimal impact. Furthermore, sanctions are fodder for conservative ideology and repression, qualities that are far more valuable to Iran’s leadership than the economic costs. Indeed, one could plausibly view the sanctions and encirclement strategy as one of the pillars of the authoritarian state. More coercion is a fool’s errand, no matter how satisfying it would be for pro-Israel enthusiasts and Iranian exiles alike.

Consider, as an alternative, an entirely different tack. Since little diplomatic action can begin in the immediate aftermath of the election debacle, Obama needs to remain aloof for the moment, not sitting down to the negotiating table with Tehran until at least the end of the year. That way, he won’t be seen as rewarding the Iranian state for its repression or grotesque dishonesty. Eventually, though, he will need to talk to the Iranians and change the failed tactics of the past. And if he’s smart, he won’t start with the nuclear program. Instead, his team must think creatively to lay a solid foundation. Among the options available is implementing a unilateral-and-reciprocal approach. That is, in addition to the security guarantees that Iran has long sought–no regime change, no unprovoked military attacks–Washington could offer something relatively minor, but symbolically meaningful, such as unfreezing Iran’s assets, which have been held, off and on, since the 1979 hostage crisis. The money involved isn’t great (about $300 million)–and the European Union and Britain can maintain their freeze on larger sums–but Iranian leaders have mentioned this as a necessary step toward repairing the relationship for years. Other sanctions, on parts for civilian aircraft, for example, also could be lifted unilaterally.

The symbolic gestures can be conveyed in language that makes it clear that such measures aren’t rewards. At the same time, Iran would be expected to act reciprocally to move to the next steps. (Reciprocation might include an olive branch to its Arab neighbors.) Among those next steps would be the Iranian nuclear program. Once the relationship is more stable and distrust and animosity have diminished, progress on nonproliferation goals will be far easier to achieve and might result in robust inspections or even internationalizing Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle.

If Tehran doesn’t gainfully respond to the initial overtures, U.S. policy could, and should, be recalibrated. But without trying to move toward an improved relationship, nothing will be achieved, particularly on the matter of nuclear proliferation. And the consequences of inaction, or restarting the same old policy, could be catastrophic.

It’s possible that the political turmoil in Tehran has irreparably damaged the regime’s willingness to engage with the West. If a serious set of changes in the relationship can be engineered, however, then our allies in the region will benefit from a calmer political environment–an effort they must contribute to–and the nuclear danger could be reduced. Just as important, the Iranian people would benefit as well, because less tension removes a key excuse for repression. When Richard Nixon opened diplomatic relations with China and Ronald Reagan bargained with the Soviet Union, they were roundly criticized at home for dealing with regimes that had murdered millions of their own people. Few now would say that such bold diplomacy worked against the interests of the subjugated peoples. We owe no less to the people of Iran.

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