November 11, 2008

Reverse-engineering an Obama deal with Iran

If all the hype about the incoming Obama administration is to be believed, prospects for a deal between the US and Iran on the nuclear issue have never been brighter.  So imagine for a moment that we’re already a year into an Obama presidency, and the White House has just recently issued a proud statement that it has just negotiated a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, and talks are underway at Camp David to finalize the agreement. How did this come about? 
Let’s re-trace our steps, from that historic day a little over a year from now all the way back to today, and see just what it took to get us there…

6. (December, 2009): Presidential-level talks.  In order for an agreement to be legitimate, both countries must be involved at the highest level.  This means an eventual face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the US and Iran. 
Though Supreme Leader Khamenei chose not to attend the meeting personally, he decided to send Iran’s recently-elected reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, in his place.  Just a few months after his reelection to a third term as President, Khatami is re-energized and not looking to miss out on a second chance to make history.  He jumps at the opportunity to re-make his legacy and sits down in good faith with his American counterpart.  A final draft of the agreement is announced shortly thereafter. 
5. (October-November, 2009): Cabinet-level negotiations.  While the Presidential-level talks receive most of the press, it is the back and forth between the US Secretary of State and the Iranian Foreign Minister – a notable achievement in its own right – that cements an eventual deal.  Though neither side feels it is a perfect arrangement – (no compromise ever does) – both diplomats work out a plan that guarantees Iran will not pursue nuclear weapons, while also ushering Iran back into the international community as a key regional actor. 
4. (January-October, 2009): Track-one talks.  To prove his seriousness about finding a negotiated solution to the nuclear problem, President Obama begins his first one hundred days in office by announcing ambassadorial-level negotiations with the Iranian government.  In what prove to be a long, grueling process with little or nothing to show for it, these tiresome negotiations prove invaluable for both countries to clear up nearly three decades of hostility and animosity toward each other. 
Throughout the 10 month process, each side vents its frustrations–the US at Iranian involvement in attacks on American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran at America’s unwillingness to allow Tehran to continue its nuclear program as it wishes.  But throughout it all, both sides maintain a fundamental willingness to compromise, and this is what drives an eventual framework for a deal.  Tehran helps to rein in violence against US troops in its neighboring countries, and Washington drops its “zero enrichment” demand in exchange for unprecedented multilateral inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.
3. (January, 2009): Military and back-channel talks.  The Obama administration wastes no time before tackling the big issues – even before inauguration day, senior military officials from the incoming White House meet with Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders.  Far from the media spotlight, the topic of discussion is: ways to prevent an incident between the two militaries that could escalate into full-scale confrontation. 
Both sides agree that in the event of either a naval skirmish in the Persian Gulf, or an altercation on the Iran-Iraq border, cooler heads must prevail and neither side should allow things to escalate beyond manageable levels.  With this, both sides are guaranteed enough time and space to allow for a diplomatic breakthrough to begin to develop. 
2. (Late November, 2008): Still-President Bush announces the opening of a US diplomatic interests section in Iran.  In a move that analysts compare to Nixon’s reopening diplomatic relations with China, President Bush announces a plan to put the first US diplomats on the ground in Iran since 1979.  Most experts agree that Bush’s conservative credentials provide him with the political maneuverability to make such a bold gesture toward the Iranians without being labeled soft on Tehran. 
This move creates the space for the incoming Obama administration to reorient US policy away from the hostile and threatening rhetoric and toward a more reasonable and conciliatory tone. 
1. (Fall, 2008): A shifting atmosphere within Congress and among the American public allows for a thoughtful reassessment of US-Iran policy.  After the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people are wary of further military commitment in the Middle East.  It’s not long before the prospect of an attack on Iran is essentially off the table.  Special interest groups calling for aggressive action against Iran are increasingly losing influence, and Congress and the public are left wondering what other options we haven’t tried yet with respect to Iran. 
The electorate welcomes Senator Obama’s campaign platform of direct negotiations with America’s enemies, and it is precisely this sensible and cerebral foreign policy that propels him to an overwhelming victory on Election Day.
Now, it may come as no surprise that some of the developments I mentioned in that last step have already happened.  Obama was elected with a large electoral mandate.  And most experts agree that an attack on Iran is no longer imminent.  An astute reader of this blog may even point out that, with the defeat of H.Con.Res. 362, the Iran-hawks in town are increasingly losing their influence. 
I raised these points not because it’s easy to predict things that have already happened, but to demonstrate how recent events might provide the momentum President-elect Obama needs to follow through with his campaign promise of negotiations with Iran.  Each of these steps acts as a foundation on which to build more momentum, with the ultimate goal of a negotiated solution.  And though it may not work out exactly like I’ve planned, taking an incremental approach like this one, in which every little bit of progress counts, is the only way President-elect Obama will be able to break out of the rut that US foreign policy on Iran has occupied for the last 29 years. 
I, for one, am hoping for an announcement from President Bush relatively soon…

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