Washington DC – “If the only thing [the United States] talks about with the Iranians is the nuclear issue, then our efforts to get out of the last thirty years of futility will fail,” said Ambassador John Limbert, a former hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran and currently a professor at the US Naval Academy. The Obama administration needs to recognize that the US is engaged in “asymmetric negotiations” with Iran in which the two sides are seeking different results and engaging over different issues, he told the audience at NIAC’s conference on Capitol Hill yesterday.
The second panel at the conference featured Amb. Limbert alongside former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and Senior Fellow at the Arms Control Association Greg Thielmann. The discussion focused on the state of diplomatic negotiations with Iran and the West, as well as human rights in Iran.
The United States and the other P5+1 countries are seeking safeguards against Iran’s potential development of a nuclear weapon. However, since these negotiations are “asymmetric,” Iran’s goal is to secure for itself international respect, justice, and rights. Each side has approached the negotiations with not only different goals in mind, but different views on what issues need to be discussed, making it a very difficult and frustrating process of negotiations. But it also presents an opportunity to pressure Iran on its human rights violations.
The United States “needs to engage Iran as much as [it] can,” said Ambassador Thomas Pickering, as he outlined a proposal for what he calls a “Grand Agenda.” Recognizing the Iranian government’s human rights violations, the panel addressed how this could be addressed in the ongoing talks. “The Islamic Republic has been mistreating its own people for thirty years,” said Amb. Limbert. Despite the brutality of the Iranian government recently, “a firm but polite” approach by the United States is needed when addressing human rights violations in Iran.
One major impediment to fruitful negotiations, according to Ambassador Limbert, is the timeline the U.S. government has set for progress. Within asymmetric negotiations, he said, each side invariably moves to the beat of its own drum. As a result, the U.S. government needs to exercise patience and understand that the recent talks are only the beginning of long term negotiations with Iran. Fortunately for the United States, the panelists concluded that the question of when Iran might become a nuclear threat is “a matter of years, not months.” Greg Thielmann said that he is still an “agnostic on whether or not Iran wants to get a nuclear weapon in hand,” but that we can afford to be somewhat patient in our dealings with them.
Limbert spoke of an exchange he had with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who negotiated the hostages’ release in 1980. “When I asked Secretary Christopher what helped secure a successful negotiation with the Iranians, he said: ‘Patience.’ Had we set a timeline on those negotiations, we [the hostages] would still be there.”