Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP Images

A poster of Ayatollah Khamenei hanging behind a missile on display at a military exhibition marking the twenty-eighth anniversary of the beginning of the Iran–Iraq war, Tehran, September 23, 2008

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.



Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a tour of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, April 8, 2008

Skeptics of our proposal often concede that the international community may have to accept some Iranian enrichment activity; but they also insist that turning this enrichment into a multinational enterprise should be seen as a fallback position for the US. The problem with such a view is that it is tantamount to saying that a multinational project is a good idea that the US cannot consider without first failing with its existing, sanctions-based policy.

We think US policy is already failing, as Iran’s growing numbers of centrifuges attest. Starting with a workable proposal is better than continuing with a losing approach in the hope that we can recoup our position later. It is unlikely that if the Obama administration adopts a zero-centrifuge approach and fails it will end up with more political and bargaining leverage than it had when it started. Put another way, if the US continues to insist that Iran scrap all its centrifuges or else, we will soon find ourselves in a situation where Iran has tens of thousands of centrifuges and the only options left are both unpromising and prohibitively costly.

We have proposed that the United States engage in direct, bilateral talks with Iran on its nuclear program in parallel with continued multilateral discussions with Germany and the members of the UN Security Council (the “P5+1”). We envisage a prominent role for America’s European partners in the establishment of a multilateral enrichment facility on Iranian soil. We believe that this approach offers crucial advantages not only for the nuclear issue but for addressing the parallel challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan. Here again, we argue that the US and Iran should hold separate but parallel direct discussions on the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that these discussions, in turn, must become part of a broader, multiparty approach that includes the members of the Security Council and neighboring countries in the region. On the US side, these three distinct but related tracks would be coordinated by the secretary of state.

Exploratory negotiations in the region will first require a solution to the problem of who will participate and how best to coordinate their relations. Each major issue—Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Iran nuclear problem—would have its own negotiating forum, or track, with Iran and the other key players participating. Working in parallel with the UN secretary-general, an umbrella group, including all the major players, would be established to coordinate the work of the smaller groups and ratify the results.

As far as Iraq is concerned, in Washington’s ideal world, Tehran would have no influence over Iraqi affairs, and Iraq would act as a stalwart supporter of American interests and allies in the region. Tehran would like the same for itself, namely, an Iraq over which America has little or no influence and an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite factions friendly to Iranian interests. Despite these differences, there is much on which the US and Iran can agree. Both support keeping Iraq territorially intact (rather than carved up into separate, sectarian regions) and with popularly elected leadership.

Indeed, although Iran has shown its readiness to support militias that attack US troops, both countries support the Maliki government, and neither wants to see Iraq become the battleground for proxy wars, in which neighboring countries provide military or political support for their client groups inside Iraq. Saudi Arabia, for example, might increase its support for Sunni tribal groups such as those in Anbar province—which continue to be regarded with deep suspicion by the Maliki government—while Iran might feel compelled to bolster Shiite militias or elements in the Iraqi security forces. The aim of negotiations would be to avoid both kinds of intervention.

The United States wants to be able to draw down troops and other personnel in Iraq while maintaining a reasonable level of stability and security. Iran also wants US forces out of Iraq, while avoiding a situation of renewed chaos and civil war. Iran also has economic interests in Iraq, which it sees as a potential trading partner and OPEC ally.

Neither the US nor Iran is likely to achieve all of its aims in Iraq. For the US, it is a stubborn and unalterable fact of geography that while its forces may leave Iraq, Iran will always be there, sharing a border with its neighbor and sometime rival. On the other hand, Iraq will likely want to maintain a relationship with the US, if only to counterbalance Iran’s influence. Most Iraqi Shias, despite common religious preferences and temporary connections with Iran, have no interest in becoming Persian puppets.

Both the US and Iran would profit if they were willing to settle for a stable and secure Iraq to which both countries have strong ties but over which neither is dominant. The stakes are sufficiently high and the potential for disastrous conflict sufficiently strong that there is reason to find common ground on mutual interests.

As the Iraq Study Group (ISG) chaired by Lee Hamilton and James Baker stressed in 2006, and American military commanders have repeatedly underscored, the primary challenge facing Iraq is political, not military. Iraq’s internal political disputes have to be resolved by the Iraqis themselves. But Iraq’s neighbors, with their strong ties to various Iraqi factions, have the power to promote progress, paralysis, or worse—civil war.

A multilateral diplomatic initiative—involving not just Iran and the US but also Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and Syria—would complement and facilitate a change in the size of the US military deployments in Iraq. A similar effort was first proposed in the ISG report, which observes:

No country in the region will benefit in the long term from a chaotic Iraq. Yet Iraq’s neighbors are not doing enough to help Iraq achieve stability. Some are undercutting stability.5

The bipartisan report called for a “new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region.” It also proposed that Iraq’s neighbors and other relevant governments—including the permanent members of the UN Security Council—“should form a support group to reinforce security and national reconciliation within Iraq—neither of which Iraq can achieve on its own.” These recommendations were ignored by the Bush administration, yet they have only become more urgent as the US drawdown approaches.

Consistent with the ISG report, we propose that the US encourage an international diplomatic effort on Iraq to be organized, preferably under the auspices of the United Nations. Its purpose would be to provide a diplomatic setting so that the parties could coordinate their efforts to help Iraq create a workable federal government, preserve its territorial integrity, achieve a fair distribution of oil wealth, and resettle the nearly five million Iraqi displaced persons and refugees, many of whom are now in neighboring countries in the Middle East.

It has to be stressed that until now, no regional institution has been established that includes all of Iraq’s neighbors together with members of the Security Council. Instead, each government in the region has been left to pursue its own policy in an ad hoc fashion and with no or only haphazard coordination with other governments.

The consequences of this “everyone for himself” approach are obvious and unwelcome. The US has sought to develop relations with many constituencies in Iraq, including various groups that have taken part in the insurgency, such as the Sunnis of the Awakening, not only as part of its effort to pacify Iraq, but also to counter the influence of Iran. The Iranians are aware of this and have pursued a similar strategy of their own—including brokering peace agreements between different Shiite factions and providing support to the Badr Brigade and other militias. The Saudis and Jordanians, fearful of Iranian intentions, have provided assistance to Sunni insurgents, which is contrary to the interests of their ally, the United States.

If these competing interests are to be addressed and resolved, it would, we suggest, be important for the various governments to establish a regional diplomatic forum where they can confront their differences in a process of ongoing consultation and negotiation. The members of such a forum would need to recognize and address the concerns of all of Iraq’s neighbors; the central question facing them will be their ability to put Iraq’s national interests first. A regional forum and a series of agreements among Iraq’s neighbors would not guarantee stability in the region. They could, however, avoid a disastrous outcome and then go beyond that to support a secure Iraq.

The diplomatic effort proposed here would have several components. First, the US president would appoint a special envoy to initiate a round of diplomacy with all the governments in the region to address questions concerning Iraq. The UN secretary-general would designate a diplomatic team that would work in parallel with or together with the US special envoy to establish such a team. The US, together with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iraq’s neighbors, would share the burden in organizing this initiative. American leadership will be critical, but Washington cannot monopolize the effort. If it does, this will be perceived as yet another “Made in the USA” project imposed from outside and intended to further American interests at the expense of others. International participation under UN auspices will provide the kind of legitimacy needed for the project to succeed.

A priority for the UN and the US envoys would be to make it clear to Baghdad that the first and most important goal of this initiative is the support of Iraqi sovereignty and regional stability and that any decisions or actions would be consistent with the objectives of the Iraqis themselves. This is important, because no plan for Iraq can succeed without the support of the Iraqis. At the same time, no such plan can succeed—even if it has the support of Iraq and its Sunni neighbors—without the endorsement and participation of Iran.

The forum would have both near-term and long-term objectives. At the beginning, the UN and US envoys would meet with participating governments bilaterally with the goal of agreeing to refrain from interfering with or undermining the government of Iraq. The forum would also allow Iraq’s neighbors to articulate to international negotiators their suspicions and grievances about the behavior of others in the region and have them addressed. These UN-endorsed exploratory exchanges can also be used to better coordinate the material and political support that the regional and great power governments are providing to Iraq.

The long-term objective might be a formal agreement in which all participating governments pledge themselves to a set of principles and actions: supporting Iraq’s territorial integrity, encouraging reconciliation between the various groups within Iraq (based on majority rule, minority rights, and the fair division of oil income), abstaining from interference in Iraqi internal affairs, ending military support for non-state groups operating in Iraq, planning for the resettlement of the five million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes, whether outside or inside Iraq, bolstering economic and political relations between Iraq and its neighbors, and the inclusion of Iraq in any future regional security arrangements. These resolutions will be of particular importance to Iran, because Tehran wants a stable and friendly neighbor on its border—one governed by Iraq’s Shia majority and without a large contingent of US troops on its territory. In addition, Iran’s interest in Iraq’s economic development will continue to be substantial. Iran has benefited in the past from trade with Iraq but has suffered when Iraq has been unstable or aggressively hostile, as under Saddam Hussein.

All the governments in the Middle East have a common interest in avoiding wholesale disintegration and civil war in the region, but it would be naive to think that there are not obstacles or risks associated with this approach. The Saudis, for example, support Sunni militias against what they see as Shia retribution. Saudi Arabia has less leverage in Iraq than Iran and worries that Iran’s star is ascending. Like other Sunni countries, Saudi Arabia also views the Maliki government as unfriendly. Turkey’s leaders fear that the good relations that the Shias of Iraq and Iran have established with the Iraqi Kurds will bring about their worst nightmare—a declared and recognized independent Kurdistan. This is a result Turkey cannot accept, despite the fact that the Kurdish population has explicitly supported it.

There are obvious risks to what we propose. Not only may a multilateral initiative for Iraq fail, but a regional forum could become an arena where disputing parties seek to frustrate or dominate others. While this is one potential outcome, we believe the risks are far greater if the countries continue to pursue their current, independent policies in Iraq. Without an institution that allows for the recognition and management of their competing interests, the parties will act on their own, and the results will play out in the streets of Kirkuk and Baghdad. Finally, it is almost certain that there will be increased suspicion and rivalry between the United States and Iran if Iran is left to pursue its own interests in Iraq without some form of regional mediation. Each side will see the worst in the other and publicly blame the other for rising violence and dislocation—including, for example, the recent dramatic escalation of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In this context of deepening anger and distrust, it will be even more difficult to address other issues the US and Iran should be discussing, such as the future of Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program.

Afghanistan and its increasingly volatile neighbor, Pakistan, face deeply difficult problems, many of which now threaten to engulf the entire region. Having been given sanctuary in northwest Pakistan after September 11, the Taliban have very substantially increased their presence in Afghanistan, while Pakistan itself has become a safe haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, including those that attacked Mumbai in December.

These developments are of great concern to Iran, which shares borders with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, Iran supported Northern Alliance forces against the Taliban, and contributed in important ways to the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. Renewed Iranian assistance, for example in the form of political cooperation, could help prevent the continued spread of the conflict. The Afghanistan expert Barney Rubin has pointed out that US–Iranian cooperation will be crucial for the Afghanistan presidential elections to be held in the second half of this year. If an election is not possible, the US will again need Iran’s help to organize a Loya Jirga (a traditional assembly of tribal leaders used in Afghanistan to resolve important political matters), drawing on Iran’s longstanding ties and influence over some Afghan warlords and tribal leaders.

A US decision on a new strategy toward Iran will not wait. That is President-elect Obama’s inheritance. Talking to Iran will be difficult. In the US, some political leaders and interest groups oppose better relations, though public opinion surveys suggest that a solid majority of Americans favor a diplomatic solution to US–Iranian differences over nuclear enrichment and other issues. Similarly, in Iran, an attempt to engage or compromise with the US will be attacked by factions seeking a political advantage, despite the hopes of millions of Iranians that the US and Iran find a way to improve relations. Suspicion dominates a relationship with a long history of grievances on both sides. Washington doubts the innocence of Iran’s nuclear intentions, and Tehran suspects that America’s real intent is regime change.

Moreover, some analysts, including many Israelis, view Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel, object to Iran’s backing of Hezbollah, and believe that Iran’s support for Hamas undermines a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. In addition, Iran’s human rights record provokes understandable opposition internationally. These concerns are extremely urgent, but deteriorating relations between Washington and Tehran will only strengthen Iranian hard-liners and therefore exacerbate the human rights situation. US–Iranian hostility may also give Iran a greater incentive to exercise its leverage with Hamas and Hezbollah in ways that undermine a resolution to the Israel–Palestinian dispute. We believe that successful engagement with Iran on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the nuclear issue could translate into progress on other issues. Indeed, Iran’s secret 2003 proposal for US talks included on its agenda Hamas, Hezbollah, and a two-state solution.

The US can impose costs on Iran, but it cannot impose its will. The same is true for Iran. Progress requires on both sides a greater focus on strategy rather than tactics. Adopting a new, integrated approach will require political leadership that is disciplined and willing to take risks. There could be frustrations, setbacks and dangers, but the US and Iran can avoid a downward spiral that risks military conflict. They can also create an opportunity for progress on some of the most difficult and complicated challenges the US will have to confront in the coming years.

—January 15, 2009


The central recommendation of this article is that the US must engage Iran directly and without preconditions, one of the primary recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. These distinguished authors have a firm grasp of the difficulties and the opportunities such engagement with this complex region requires. On the whole, I found the article a refreshing contribution to the US foreign policy discourse. Since President Obama will be addressing Iraq, Afghanistan, and the nuclear program in Iran as core national security problems soon after taking office, I commend this valuable perspective on how the administration’s policies on these three critical issues could be integrated into a new approach to the region.

Lee H. Hamilton
Co-chair, Iraq Study Group

An important contribution to a better understanding of what needs to be done to cope constructively, and in a manner that genuinely enhances US national interests, in response to the Iranian challenge.

Zbigniew Brzezinski

This is an important article about the direction of American policy, even if one does not agree with every prescription.

Henry Kissinger

This Issue

February 12, 2009