June 3, 2008

US-Iran Issue Linkages: Instrument of Diplomacy, Casualty of Preconditions?

The script between Washington and Tehran seems to be replaying like a broken record: The United States to Iran, “Suspend your uranium enrichment and we will talk.” Iran to the US, “We will not give up our right to nuclear energy.”

Iran’s unwillingness to acquiesce to external demands about the production of nuclear technology before discussion begins and the US’s unwillingness to drop the precondition before discussion begins causes the first casualty of preconditions: diplomatic engagement.

Yet, there is a second casualty of the failure to bring Iran to the table, a casualty whose inclusion in the international diplomatic exchange may provide hope for the cooling of US-Iran tensions: issue linkages.

The theory of neoliberal institutionalism in international relations discusses the ability of international institutions to facilitate cooperation among states. These institutions are designed to promote inter-state dialogue, and it is this dialogue that can allow cross-issue compromises.

Yet, with the precondition there is no US-Iran dialogue; without dialogue, issue linkages can never unfold. US-Iran issue clashes are salient enough that hardliners in both states leave little wiggle room for progress when an issue is examined singularly. At a February conference at the Middle East Institute, STRATEGA CEO Hillary Mann Leverett said, “Each item – sanctions, dealing with terrorist groups, the nuclear program – if treated on its own would essentially require one party to surrender on a very difficult issue for them and hope that the other party at some point would find it in their hearts to make good on a separate issue.”

Can you truly expect Iran or the US to make notable concessions on any of these hotbutton issues unless they can barter with all the bargaining chips? It seems faulty logic to expect Iran to play their nuclear card before all the cards are even presented. And if the precondition for any US-Iran negotiations, even over non-nuclear issues, is cessation of all nuclear activities by Iran, then progress is unlikely.

The script continues to play on the broken record, but it’s time to change it. Only through inviting open and unqualified discourse can the heavily negotiated, cross-issue compromises unfold in US-Iran relations. And that is essential to effective engagement.

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