WikiLeaks: US-Iran Relations "Now What" Moment?
As negotiations in Geneva commence this weekend, it would be wise for both sides to utilize lessons learned -- from the previous round of diplomacy, and from the WikiLeaks debacle -- to maximize the chances for successful diplomacy.
Lost in the clamor and commotion of WikiLeaks releasing 251,287 diplomatic cables is the perspective of those who currently or have recently served in government. For four years, I served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department during the period in which most of the Iran-related cables are from. We worked hard to find constructive solutions toward peace. When President Obama took office in 2009, we launched the most serious attempt since 1979 to begin dialogue with Iran. Clearly, our diplomatic efforts were not perfect, but trying to predict Iranian politics is often a humbling experience. With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, it would have been more effective if we had done a few things differently. Wikileaks may highlight this, or confirm previously held suspicions. Regardless, it has brought three key issues to the fore:
1. This unprecedented violation will strategically weaken America in ways that are currently impossible to predict. If nothing else, government officials, businessmen, students and others around the world may think twice before confiding in their American counterparts -- if they are still willing talk. And weakening American diplomacy lessens its credibility as an alternative to political, economic and military conflict.
While many view this massive security breach as an exciting and
unique glimpse into foreign policy, the bottom line is that it is
illegal. And while some may hope that these leaks serve as a catalyst
for policy adjustments and greater government transparency, Americans
should ask themselves: at what cost? Simply put, U.S. diplomats -- many
of whom are my friends and former colleagues -- have been put in harm's
way as a result of this illegal act. America has these security and
confidentiality rules in place to protect those who serve.
Moreover, as the leaked cables show, the highest levels of the
Obama administration never believed that diplomacy could succeed. While
this does not cheapen Obama's Nowruz message and other groundbreaking
facets of his initial outreach, it does raise three important questions:
How can U.S. policymakers give maximum effort to make diplomacy succeed
if they admittedly never believed their efforts could work? Why was
Iran expected to accept negotiation terms that relinquished its greatest
strategic asset (1200 kg of LEU) without receiving a strategic asset of
equal value in return? And what are the chances that Iran will take
diplomacy seriously now that it knows the U.S. never really did? The
Obama administration presented a solid vision, but never truly pursued
For Iran, WikiLeaks should make it clear -- it has no real friends, in the region or elsewhere. At best, it has leverage that is facilitated by business arrangements. Trust is in short supply. Going forward, this is likely to affect its strategic calculus vis-à-vis the U.S. and its nuclear program. While it is currently unclear whose hand will be strengthened in Tehran by these recent developments, one of two scenarios seems likely. Iran's new-found sense of isolation may exacerbate existing domestic and international pressures to the point where it feels compelled to cut a deal. Indeed, Iranian decision-makers may decide that the WikiLeaks damage suffered by the U.S. and Iran have leveled the playing field, making it easier to reach an agreement without losing face. Conversely, the information gleaned from WikiLeaks could emasculate pragmatic conservatives in Iran, embolden hardliners and their preconceived notions of "foreign plots," and reinforce Iran's "don't trust anyone" mentality that has become increasingly visible in its foreign policy since 2005.
As negotiations in Geneva commence this weekend, it would be wise for both sides to utilize lessons learned -- from the previous round of diplomacy, and from the WikiLeaks debacle -- to maximize the chances for successful diplomacy. Ambassador John Limbert, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran during my time at the State Department, used to (half) joke about doing whatever it took to keep some form of rationality in our Iran policy. If any good is to come out of the inexcusable WikiLeaks security breach, perhaps it will be something as simple as taking Ambassador Limbert's advice to heart.
Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council and a former Iran desk officer at the U.S. State Department.
This article orginally appreared in The Huffington Post.