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How to Deal with Iran

Three of the most pressing national security issues facing the Obama administration—nuclear proliferation, the war in Iraq, and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan—have one element in common: Iran.1 The Islamic Republic has made startling progress over the past few years in its nuclear program. Setting aside recent, misleading reports that Iran already has enough nuclear fuel to build a weapon, the reality is that Tehran now has five thousand centrifuges for enriching uranium and is steadily moving toward achieving the capability to build nuclear bombs.2 Having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon is not the same thing as having one, and having a large stock of low-enriched uranium is not the same as having the highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb. But the Obama administration cannot postpone dealing with the nuclear situation in Iran, as President Bush did.

Iran is closely implicated in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. Iran’s influence in Iraq is well known. As Michael Massing has reported in these pages:

The SIIC [Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council], the main government party, was founded in Iran and remains so close to Tehran that many Iraqis shun it for having a “Persian taint.” Iran is erecting mosques and power plants in the Shiite south and investing heavily in construction and communications in the Kurdish north.3

But Iran also has critical interests in Afghanistan, its neighbor to the east, where it has long opposed the Taliban and is concerned to avoid the chaos that would result from the fall of the increasingly threatened Karzai government. The Iranian government places a high priority on defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban—extremist Sunni groups which it views as direct threats to Iran’s Shiites—as well as on reducing Afghanistan’s rampant drug trade.

Of course the United States has other important concerns about Iran, including Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and the threat it poses to Israel—particularly in view of the recent conflict in Gaza. But the paramount issues of Iran’s nuclear enrichment and its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, we argue, are closely interrelated, and the way they are dealt with could determine the US’s ability to address other problems in the US–Iranian relationship.

Under President Bush, Iran’s nuclear program and its role in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated as wholly separate issues. The US government largely refused to talk to Iran on the nuclear issue and instead relied on sanctions and hectoring. By contrast, on the issue of Iraq, it agreed to ambassadorial talks, although these were largely limited to discussions of Iraq’s internal security issues, including Iranian provision of weapons to insurgents. On Afghanistan, aside from occasional allegations about collaboration with the Taliban—this despite Iran’s well-known opposition to the group—the Bush administration studiously ignored Iran. As a consequence, little progress was made on any front.

If President Obama is to dissuade Iran from building a nuclear bomb, as well as develop a successful regional strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, he will have to develop an integrated approach toward Iran that addresses all three issues.

First, both sides must recognize the connection among these issues. Success with one can build trust and create confidence needed for progress on the others. Failure on one could stymie advancement on the others. Using military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities, for example, would make cooperation on Iraq and Afghanistan impossible. Discussions across a broader agenda also create opportunities for constructive compromise. A concession on one issue can be used to resolve a sticking point on another.

Second, for such a strategy to work the US must consult in advance other parties including, most particularly, the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council (France, Britain, Russia, and China), the UN secretary-general, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, and the Arab countries. The governments in the region have a direct interest in Iran’s nuclear program, the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, and US–Iranian relations. All of the countries listed have a stake in one or more of these issues, and success is more likely if they believe their concerns are being taken into account, not excluded.

The third requirement of an integrated strategy would be to create a continuing forum or other institution that would allow the US, Iran, members of the Security Council, and neighboring governments to discuss questions involving Iraq and Afghanistan. No such institution now exists.

Resolving the nuclear issue and bringing stability to Iraq and Afghanistan will require direct talks between the United States, Iran, and other interested parties, and these talks must be without preconditions. President-elect Obama has pledged to do just that. Still, for a government to say that it is ready for talks is not enough. Three issues must be addressed before proceeding: when to talk, what to say, and how to say it.

Even if the pace of confirmation hearings and security clearances is uncharacteristically swift, it will be at least several months before the President’s foreign policy team is ready to advance a major shift in policy toward Iran. By that time, Iran will be in the middle of the campaign for its June 12 presidential elections. That vote will likely be followed by a run-off election held later in the summer.

We suggest that a new policy be launched after the new Iranian president is chosen. A major diplomatic initiative begun in the middle of Iran’s presidential campaign would almost certainly become caught up in Iran’s domestic politics with consequences that are difficult to predict. The administration can use this time to win the support of members of Congress as well as the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese who have been part of the so-called “P5+1” talks with Iran—involving the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Equally if not more important, the Obama administration will have to consult with and reassure the US’s friends and allies in the region—notably the Arab states, Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel. It will have to make it clear that a dialogue with Iran does not mean a downgrading of our relations with other Muslim countries in the region, and that America’s direct engagement with Iran serves their security and political interests, for example, by diplomatically resolving issues that might otherwise lead to the use of American (or Israeli) military force. As regards Israel, the US should emphasize that engaging Iran offers the best chance of heading off an Iranian nuclear weapons program and for dealing with the threat Israel faces from Hezbollah and Hamas.

While the Obama administration prepares for a major diplomatic push following the Iranian elections, it should take a number of actions in the meantime. These actions would be modest and low-key but would send an unambiguous signal to the Iranian government that the US is prepared to enter serious negotiations at the appropriate time. Early on, the Obama administration could offer a simple statement that the US government will seek to talk directly to all nations, without preconditions, in order to address the world’s problems. This could be followed by a reaffirmation of Article I of the 1981 Algiers Accord, in which the United States pledged not to interfere politically or militarily in Iran’s internal affairs.

Following these initial actions and before the results of the Iranian presidential elections become apparent, the US should consider opening mid-level, official contact with Iran to discuss simultaneous public actions that each government could take to improve the tone and, eventually, the substance of the relationship. This direct contact could explore renewed talks on Iraq, releasing Iranian detainees captured in Iraq, allowing direct air flights between the US and Iran, easing travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York, the establishment of a US-staffed interests section in Tehran, new forms of cooperation to combat illicit drug trafficking on the Afghan–Iranian border, and confidence-building measures among the two countries’ naval forces in the Persian Gulf. (As it stands, the US and Iran find themselves cheek to jowl both in the Persian Gulf and along the Iraq–Iran border—a dangerous situation that risks accident, escalating tensions, or even war.)

Actions such as these are limited in scope, and would not at first substantively alter the character of US–Iranian relations, but they would communicate to Iran that the US intends to pursue a different strategy from the one followed by the previous administration. Following the Iranian elections in the summer, the new administration could privately and informally explore the idea of talks at a higher level.

A new policy also requires a new tone. Iran is a proud nation with roots in a centuries-old civilization; its insistence on being treated with mutual respect is not empty rhetoric. Continued denunciation of the regime will likely produce greater intransigence, especially as Iran enters its presidential campaign. Iranians bristle at the use of the phrase “carrots and sticks,” which they associate with the treatment of donkeys and which in any case suggests that they can be either bought off or beaten into submission. More generally, the US government would do well to follow a first principle of diplomacy—when you want to change a bad situation, start by shutting up.

Moreover, Iranian paranoia about the US cannot be underestimated. Alerting the Iranian government in advance to the timing and objectives of each of the steps described above would avoid a negative reaction. It would also prepare the way for a major new approach to the issues concerning nuclear enrichment, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

In an earlier article in these pages4 we outlined an approach that would open a way to deal with Iran’s nuclear aspirations. We proposed that, with US support, European nations form a multinational consortium with Iran to produce enriched uranium inside Iran, thus transferring a purely national program to international ownership, management, and supervision. All nuclear developments in Iran would be monitored by an enhanced verification system with the full participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that military nuclear activities are not taking place. Highly placed Iranians support this approach and the Iranian government itself has at various times raised the possibility of a multinationally owned enrichment facility on Iranian soil—which would provide it with a guaranteed supply of fuel for a civilian nuclear energy program.

With international staff on the ground, around the clock, a multinational system could effectively prevent enrichment for military purposes and would deter Iran from pursuing a parallel or clandestine enrichment program. If Iran accepts such an arrangement, it would not only accept international scrutiny but would put itself in a deeply vulnerable position if it revoked the agreement.

The Obama administration will not have many opportunities to formulate a workable nuclear policy toward Iran. Up to now, the Obama team seems to be seeking to have it both ways. The President-elect has endorsed negotiations but also has indicated a readiness to continue the tough talk of recent years and the use of punitive sanctions. Such a policy is unlikely to succeed. Saying you are willing to talk while acting the same way as your predecessor is not going to persuade the Iranians to agree to controls on an enrichment program in which they have invested precious resources and considerable pride.

  1. 1

    The authors believe that today Afghanistan and Pakistan have become virtually a hyphenated name for a large problem. Our concentration in this article is on Afghanistan as a neighbor of Iran, but includes Pakistan wherever that is relevant.

  2. 2

    News reports and some commentators have recently claimed that Iran has enough material for a nuclear weapon. These reports referred to Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium. This is a misleading claim. To begin with, one cannot make a nuclear weapon with low-enriched uranium. A nuclear weapon requires highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and Iran possesses neither. In theory, Iran could take its stock of low-enriched uranium and enrich it to a grade required for making bombs, but its low-enriched uranium is currently under the surveillance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Diverting this material for military purposes would be discovered by the IAEA. (Detection of diversion is the IAEA’s technological strong suit.) Iran’s choices, therefore, are to cheat and get caught or to kick out the inspectors. Either action would represent an extreme departure from Iranian strategy to date and in any case would likely precipitate military action by Israel.

  3. 3

    Embedded in Iraq,” The New York Review, July 17, 2008.

  4. 4

    A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff,” The New York Review, March 20, 2008.

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