Washington, DC – The current US approach to Iran is undermined by the lack of a broader strategic outlook and the singular emphasis on the nuclear issue, according to panelists at NIAC’s March 10th conference, “Iran at a Crossroads: Assessing a Changing Landscape.”
The afternoon’s panel discussion, entitled “The US and Iran: Back to Confrontation?” featured former NATO Ambassador Robert Hunter, International Crisis Group director Robert Malley, and Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. Acknowledging that the current pathway may in fact be headed toward conflict, the panelists discussed how such a path could be avoided and where US policies have failed and should be reexamined.
“Preparing your stick to get stronger as you go along doesn’t make dialogue likely,” assessed Robert Malley. Until an “end game” is fully presented, the US will only continue to “negotiate with ourselves.” Furthermore, Malley explained, the current focus on the nuclear issue and on sanctions offer only short-term responses to US concerns regarding Iran. Such an approach is unlikely to produce any lasting rewards.
“One of the problems in Washington is there is an Iranian exceptionalism,” according to Professor Cole. “You have a country like China that has nuclear weapons…cracks down on human rights” and “has severe differences with the United States” and yet the US still engages China. “Is it a pragmatic matter or is it a matter of principle” that the US does not similarly deal directly with Iran, asked Cole. “We haven’t been willing to say if Iran will do everything we want it do, we will ensure their security, even though we used this rhetoric with North Korea.”
Ambassador Hunter reiterated this point. “We need to look at the relationship with Iran in all its components,” argued Hunter. “To narrow it down to one issue, we wouldn’t do that with any other country, not even the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”
Regarding the US pursuit of sanctions, Malley asserted that “robust sanctions may make the US feel good, but they do not really meet any objectives to curtail nuclear programs.” Unless the UN and other nations join the US in its pursuit and enforcement of sanctions, the US’s standing will weaken in the political realm, according to Malley. Absent a strategic plan moving forward, “the idea of Iran giving up its enrichment is a fantasy”.
Geopolitical calculations were also considered, with Afghanistan and Iraq discussed as two variables that make an overall strategic plan crucial for both Iran and the United States. Professor Cole added that the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are gaining world prominence and power, which complicate US efforts to apply pressure on Iran.
The BRIC nations do not necessarily want crippling sanctions on Iran’s energy as their own energy appetites rise steadily, argued Cole. India, for instance, is experiencing annual population increases of 7-9%, making them unlikely to support a curtailment of energy options. While Russia and Brazil do not rely on Iran for energy purposes, their own geopolitical agenda complicate Iran-US nuclear engagement.
While agreeing that confrontation is by no means an inevitability, the panelists expressed concern with the current status of US-Iran relations. As posed by Malley, if engagement is perceived to be exhausted, and then sanctions are perceived to be exhausted, “are we left with a situation in which pressure is built by outside actors and within the political system that some kind of military option is the only one that people think is available? That would be a tragic mistake, but that is the conundrum that we all face and we have to find a way out of.