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January 14, 2008

Samore Wants to Talk to Iran…But Just Not Yet

Gary Samore doesn’t believe that negotiations with Iran should be pursued under the current administration. Instead, he thinks Bush should work towards another round of UN sanctions and leave the dialogue up to the next administration.
In his presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center entitled “Prospects for an Iranian Nuclear Deal”, Samore argued that Bush should just ride out his current approach for the rest of his ‘lame duck’ term.

On my first day as an intern here at NIAC, I accompanied NIAC’s Dan Robinson to my first event coverage. Since I moved to DC last fall to begin a Masters program at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, there definitely hasn’t been a shortage of Iran events to go to. Iran has been on everyone’s lips, in my classes, on TV, and at numerous talks around DC. I’m excited to have finally been able to attend an event as a NIAC representative, and look forward to keeping you all informed of future events throughout the spring semester!

Below are some of my thoughts from Gary Samore’s talk. I’ll post the link to the CSPAN coverage when it becomes available. I’d be interested to hear your opinions!

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While it is positive that presidential candidates from both parties have recently come out in favor of future bilateral talks with Iran, Samore’s suggested containment strategy to maintain the status quo for the next year could prove dangerous. As we have seen with the recent Iranian patrol boat incident, the situation is still a tinderbox waiting to explode. With the Iranian and American military in a continual stare-down, things are still unpredictable.

Samore further argued that maintaining the preconditions on negotiating with Iran is a “sensible strategy,” since without them Iran would have the incentive to drag out talks—all the while continuing with its uranium enrichment. But isn’t Iran already continuing its uranium enrichment program after two rounds of UN sanctions? The choice now seems to instead be between having Iran continue uranium enrichment in isolation, or continue enrichment while preliminary dialogue takes place.

Samore actually does agrees that a thawing of US-Iran relations would weaken Iran’s hardliners, who would actually see any American concessions as “poison carrots” that would weaken their domestic position (which relies on maintaining public fear of a US attack). But he thinks we should wait until next year to do this.

While he does take Iranian domestic politics into account with regards to the country’s foreign policy stance, by addressing the March elections in the majles, his suggestion to time a new round of UN sanctions to coincide with the elections may end up backfiring. That’s because if the sanctions end up being only a watered-down symbolic resolution—as will likely be the case as per Russian and Chinese design—they would not have a tangible effect on voters and may instead result in more pro-hardliner votes at the polls. The hardliners will definitely use a third round of sanctions as an excuse to rally their base by threatening that the West is still out to get them.

Rather, it seems that it would be better to offer up dialogue right before the elections. Then the onus would be on the Iranian regime to act, and the pragmatist and reformist coalition that is currently gaining ground would be given a boost if some type of breakthrough seemed near.

In all fairness, Samore is right on target on his analysis of Iran’s intentions and strategic decision-making. Iran is a rational actor that is acting in its national security interests just like any other country. It’s the geopolitical atmosphere that Iran finds itself in—rather than the nature of the regime itself—that would pressure them to move toward a weapons capability. Therefore, some type of agreement does need to be reached with Iran.

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