Washington, DC – The current US debate on Iran is not between those arguing for a pre-emptive military strike and those who do not. Rather, the debate is between those advocating talking first and bombing next, and those who believe no talks are needed before the bombing takes place. With these words, Ambassador James Dobbins, President George W. Bush’s former envoy to Afghanistan, opened NIAC’s conference “Can Obama Untangle the Iranian Challenge.”
“My own view,” said Dobbins, “is that dialogue with Iran is not going to lead to immediate results. I do not see a Grand Bargain that will immediately resolve the nuclear issue, terrorism, Arab Israeli conflict, and the many other issues which burden this relationship. Dialogue doesn’t always lead to agreement, but it does lead to more information on the basis of which we can make more informed decisions.”
Dr. Farideh Farhi, a professor at the University of Hawai, reminded the audience of several important facts about political structures and dynamics in Iran that are frequently ignored in US policy making. Chief among her observations was the notion that “Iran has politics too.”
“In the case of Iran, we treat this country as if it was a unified body with a head and we can just tell it what to do,” she said. Farhi described the intense competition between political factions in Iran as “raucous” and rife with “tremendous conflict.” Such political dynamics render outside pressures unlikely to affect the foreign policy directions of the country, she argued.
This is further complicated by the Iranian insistence on resisting the idea of servitude, born out of Iran’s long history of dealing with outside powers interfering in its internal affairs.
No political party in Iran can afford to be seen as ‘appeasing’ the United States. This is why, explained Farhi, it’s no use trying to ‘game’ the Iranian political system by pitting hardliners against pragmatists. The current approach of putting economic pressure on Iran in the hope that it will force pragmatic elements to shift Iran’s policies is unlikely to succeed. If the pragmatists are seen as willing to come to the negotiating table because of US pressure, they will be undermined by hardline elements who will cast them as appeasers.
Farhi suggested that the only way to reshape Iran’s security oriented outlook is to ‘loosen the noose’ we have put around its political system. Drawing a parallel between post-9/11 United States and Iran in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, Farhi said “any country that perceives itself to be under attack will become more conservative, more nationalistic.”
Only a “serious prior commitment to improved relations” will break the deadlock between the US and Iran. Without this commitment, she said, even talks without preconditions will fail.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and former director of non-proliferation and international policy programs at the Center for American Progress, provided a four point plan of his own for the new administration.
First, President-elect Obama should not rush with any outreach to Iran and wait for the upcoming presidential elections in Iran to play out before initiating high level contact.
But, Washington should immediately engage Iran in regional conferences and other multilateral settings, to demonstrate America’s preference for diplomacy.
Third, America should clarify that its policy is not regime change in Iran, adding later that change in Iran is best achieved by the US not making declaratory statements in that direction.
Finally, Cirincione urged President-elect Obama to open up a US interest-section in Iran if President Bush does not do so before he leaves office.
Congressman John Tierney (D-MA) praised the JES, urging for its recommendations to be heeded. “Now is the right time for a shift in strategy, in part because the United States currently has more leverage with respect to Iran than we’ve had in several years,” said Tierney.
Though the rationality of Tehran is often doubted, Tierney argued that “there is ample evidence and intelligence that Iranian leadership – especially the leadership that count in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – would take a realistic and pragmatic approach to challenges.” He referenced the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran which concluded that, “‘Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach.”
Tierney concluded that, “in the long run, our relationship with the Iranian people is more important than any current relationship with any specific current Iranian leader.”
Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) added his voice in favor of diplomacy. “I have long believed dialogue to be indispensible,” he said. “I don’t see it as being very complicated.”
Specter has long been a proponent of dialogue. Last year, he tried to organize a parliamentary exchange with Iran with fellow lawmakers Joe Biden, the late Tom Lantos, Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel.
“Inter-parliamentary talks are a good place to start,” he argued.
Specter noted that Members of Congress enjoy a level of freedom and independence that those under the executive branch do not. Yet, the Pennsylvania Senator concluded on an optimistic note, “We are ready, willing, and able, and I think it’s going to happen.”
Chairman Thomas Carper (D-DE) gave the key-note address to the conference, underscoring how past policies have failed to reduce the many challenges Iran poses to the US. “It is worth pausing to remember that when President George W. Bush came to office in January 2001, Iran was not a nuclear power state. When President Bush leaves office in 63 days, Iran will be much closer to acquiring the capacity either to assemble nuclear weapons or build a break-out capability,” he said. “For this reason alone, it is increasingly clear that current policies are not preventing a nuclear Iran.”
According to Carper, the new administration has only three options on Iran: continue the status quo, engage or use military force.
Military force would be ill-advised for four reasons, Carper argued. “First, any strike would be difficult to execute as there is little known about exactly where the Iranian facilities are located. Second, U.S. or Israeli military strikes would likely rally a mostly pro-American population around the highly unpopular government of President Ahmadinejad. Third, they would surely prompt widespread Iranian retaliation throughout the region, particularly in Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Iraq. Finally, any kind of unilateral military action – particularly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq – would lack the necessary international support,” he said.
The status quo is not tenable, Carper maintained and quoted Vice President-elect Biden who said, “The net effect of demanding preconditions that Iran rejects is this: we get no results and Iran gets closer to the bomb.”
This leaves the US with only one viable option, the Delaware Senator argued, which must be pursued before any other: “It is now time for the United States to engage by pursuing a robust and aggressive diplomacy, including direct, comprehensive talks with the Iranians that address their nuclear program and support of terrorism, among other issues.”