The next U.S. president has an excellent opportunity to set things right with Iran and achieve what has eluded his five predecessors, that is, a normalization of relations with Tehran. Already a tiny step in this direction has been taken by the outgoing Bush administration’s reported readiness to seek a diplomatic, i.e., consular, office in Iran; if implemented, this will create the positive momentum for Bush’s successor to explore the necessary follow-up steps — to be chosen from the panoply of policy options on Iran.
Iran, a country of 70 million straddled between two energy hubs of Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea, has a vested interest in regional stability, considered as a sine qua non for economic progress both for Iran as well as its wealth of 15 neighbors and “near neighbors.” A tough neighborhood wrought with failed states, terrorism, drug traffic, inter- and intra-state tensions, Iran’s region in the post 9/11 context also features an unprecedented zone of shared and or parallel interests between Iran and the United States, warranting their engagement with each other on Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as on such issues as energy security, narcotics and the twin threats of Taliban and Sunni terrorism presently threatening the stability of Iran’s nuclear neighbor to the east, Pakistan.
Unfortunately, instead of capitalizing on those mutual interests, the Bush administration alienated Iran by a combination of missteps ranging from incorporating Iran in the “axis of evil” discourse, to ignoring Iran’s constructive support for the new, U.S.-backed regimes in Baghdad and Kabul, and repeatedly rebuffing Iran’s overture for a comprehensive resolution of the outstanding issues on the U.S.-Iran boilerplate. Yet, in light of the gravity of regional security issues today, the next U.S. president cannot afford to recycle the egregious errors of his predecessor, or to simply inherit Bush’s Iran policy without transforming it.
Fact is today Iran is ready for a comprehensive dialogue with the U.S. and various top Iranian officials, including Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, or Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of Parliament (Majlis), have explicitly yearned for a “new framework” for dialogue to “resolve all issues” since, to paraphrase Jalili, “the nuclear issue is not the only issue.” Tehran’s desire for a “grand bargain” with the U.S. is already implicit in Iran’s package of proposals for solving regional issues that was submitted to the “5 +1” nations last year. Ignored by the Bush administration, a serious, and early, consideration of Iran’s package by the future occupant of the Oval Office can break significant ice in the glacier of U.S.-Iran hostility conceivably as early as next year.
What Iran wants is respect, a hitherto absent recognition by Washington of Iran’s important role and position in the Middle East and a new language of U.S. diplomacy toward Iran that is not tainted with the destructive semantics of coercion and threat.
Coercive diplomacy simply doesn’t work with Iran and, instead, the parameters of an alternative persuasive diplomacy is called for that recognizes the importance of political psychology and reciprocal confidence-building initiatives. The latter could come about as a result of an interactive process centered on U.S.-Iran “expert working groups” devoted to specific policy areas such as the nuclear standoff, regional security, trade and the like.
Such a healthy new approach, sadly missing so far, can yield positive results, for instance, by narrowing the security conceptual gaps between Tehran and Washington for an “incident at sea” agreement aimed at avoiding accidental warfare between the U.S. and Iranian navies crowding the narrow channels of Persian Gulf. In turn, such incremental steps forward, when taken in tandem with each other along the wide spectrum of policy issues on the U.S.-Iran agenda, can have salutary effects on the remaining divisive issues between the two countries, including the nuclear issue.
On the contrary, in light of the stated position of both presidential hopefuls, John McCain and Barack Obama, to “toughen” the Iran sanctions once in office, the U.S. next Iran policy is already in the danger of being predetermined by ad hoc and incremental steps that are not anchored in a new strategic framework and, worse, denote policy continuity with the past precisely when discontinuity in the style, content, and orientation of the U.S. approach toward Iran should have the upper hands.
A successful U.S. Iran policy must show sensitivity to Iran’s (national security) concerns and preferences instead of ignoring them. From Tehran’s point of view, for too long the U.S. has allowed other countries to play with the “Iran card.” That needs to stop, and the U.S. own intrinsic geopolitical and other interests should act as the decisive factors driving a new U.S.-Iran policy.
Nor does the road from Tehran to Washington travel through Tel Aviv, contrary to the conventional wisdom in Washington. Rather, politicians in Israel and the U.S. must realize that any noticeable improvement in U.S.-Iran relations will impact Iran’s stance on the Middle East peace issues and, therefore, it is a sheer policy error to put the cart before the horse and demand certain changes in Iran’s external behavior that can likely come about more readily once Iran experiences a real change of U.S. behavior toward it.
The blind knot of U.S.-Iran diplomacy can only be opened with the dexterous hands of persuasive diplomacy instead of the raw teeth of coercive diplomacy. To invoke the Persian aphorism, do not open a knot with teeth when it should be with hands.
Timing is critical, however, and the next administration should not be saddled with the past mistake of benign early neglect followed by belated initiatives at the 11th hour in office that history proves never works. In addition to being persuasive and creative, the main contour of this policy should also be bold and even experimental, e.g., exploring the various nuances of a time-bound “freeze for freeze” option with respect to Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, without necessarily pegging this to a permanent suspension.
Not a “dialogue without preconditions” but rather a structured dialogue that transpires through the prism of international law and the strictures of nonproliferation regime. By all indications, Tehran is ready for such a dialogue, and hopefully, so will Washington pretty soon.
• Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team (2004-05) and the author of books on Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.