Washington, DC – Panelists yesterday urged against US-backed sanctions on Iran, and instead encouraged direct talks–without preconditions–between the US and Iran as a way to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.
“I believe we should begin to pursue a robust, diplomatic initiative with Iran on all issues and without preconditions,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said in her keynote address.
The National Iranian American Council’s half-day conference, held at 325 Russell Senate Office Building, featured two panels and a keynote address by Senator Feinstein. More than 200 people attended, including accredited media, congressional members and staff, and the academic community.
The California Senator pointed out that previous efforts to pursue negotiations have been inadequate. “These [past] offers have been presented with preconditions and without the full engagement of the United States,” Feinstein said. “We need a fresh approach and fresh ideas.”
According to panelists, Iran’s March 14 parliamentary (Majles) elections have not changed Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Instead, the ascension of hardliners will likely make a nuclear compromise more difficult.
“Sanctions… have not caused people in Iran to change their ways, but increased their defiance,” Scott Peterson (Christian Science Monitor) said.
Peterson, who spoke on the event’s first panel, was joined by Barbara Slavin, a Fellow at the US Institute of Peace and Senior Diplomatic Reporter for USA Today; and Dr. Ahmad Sadri, Professor of Sociology and Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College.
Sadri commented that since the Iranian government has made nuclear rights a common denominator among Iranians, Washington must shift its approach. His recommendation was echoed by Dr. Hans Blix, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in the second panel.
“To ask Iran to suspend its enrichment program as a precondition to talks about its enrichment program seems curious,” Blix said. He expressed skepticism about the Bush Administration’s argument that Iran had forfeited its right to enrichment by failing to live up to the safeguard agreement, describing it as a “thin legal argument.”
Blix was joined by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, co-author of a March 20 proposal in the New York Review for a multinational enrichment facility inside Iran; and Dr. David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security.
The Pickering-Luers-Walsh proposal suggests preventing an enrichment-capable Iran from building a nuclear weapon by increasing transparency through inspections and verification. Though zero-enrichment is ideal, Pickering argued, the likelihood of achieving it has become increasingly remote and alternative solutions must be explored.
“We should not let the perfect become an enemy of the good,” Pickering said in reference to Washington’s insistence on zero-enrichment.
Blix, who called Pickering’s proposal a “welcome contribution,” offered an alternative: a fuel cycle-free zone in the Middle East. Under this model, no country in the Middle East would enrich uranium, including Israel. It would, however, not address existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the region.
The former head of the IAEA also raised questions about the utility of an enrichment suspension as a non-proliferation tool. Full suspension without adequate inspections and verification would be less safe than a fully inspected and verified enrichment program, Blix argued.
Albright expressed cautious support for the Pickering proposal, but remained pessimistic about its feasibility due to Tehran’s unwillingness to compromise.
“One of the reactions I have to the various compromises that have been proposed over time… is that unfortunately Iran is never interested,” Albright said.
The conference comes at an important crossroads in US-Iran relations. Because the sanctions path has failed, it is imperative to develop alternative non-proliferation strategies.
But negotiations should not be limited to the nuclear file alone.
“Iran recently proved helpful in brokering a cease-fire between Prime minister al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr’s JAM militias in Basra,” Senator Feinstein said, pointing to Iran’s influence in Iraq. “Clearly a more positive relationship with Iran might be helpful in stabilizing Iraq.”
“The next administration must…evolve a new approach—one based on robust diplomacy rather than threat of war,” the Senator concluded.