November 30, 2008

NIAC Memo: The Battle for Iran

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Washington, DC – The battle for Iran is on – for Iran policy, that is – and a ferocious contest is in store. The combatants are former policy makers, scholars, and think tanks. They are issuing position papers and holding press conferences. On the front line of the contest are those with carrots and those with sticks, the ages-old choice in foreign affairs.

Fortunately, history and circumstances provide a clear preference. Two recent additions to the “sticks” cadre are fearful of alleged nuclear capability in Iran. The Bipartisan Policy Council and United Against Nuclear Iran both see the nuclear weapons threat from Iran as imminent, particularly threatening our ally, Israel. The VIPs on their roster include former senators Tom Daschle, George Mitchell, and Bob Dole, former CIA chief James Woolsey, and former UN envoy Richard Holbrooke, among others, some of whom may enter the Obama administration.

According to a recent op-ed by United Against Nuclear Iran, “Iran’s nuclear ambitions demand a response that will compel Iran’s leaders to change their behavior.” The approaches of the United Nations and the European Union – a mix of talks and sanctions – is not working, the group says, so more forthright compellance and threats of military action are necessary.

The other side – the “carrots” team – is a mirror image of former officials and scholars. They also regard a nuclear-armed Iran as a deplorable outcome, but their approach is far more reliant on a new diplomacy. One of the most prominent of these initiatives, the Joint Experts’ Statement on Iran, is co-chaired by Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and James Dobbins. This group proposes to “open the door to direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations at the senior diplomatic level where personal contacts can be developed, intentions tested, and possibilities explored on both sides.”

Among others, this group contends that the fitful and sporadic attempts at discussions with Iran have been too one-sided – demanding, for example, conditions that are the goal of negotiations (suspension of enrichment). These meager approaches are imbedded in hostile rhetoric that needlessly (and erroneously) blames Iran for all the region’s ills, such as the violence in Iraq. This is not diplomacy.

Who is right?

The evidence at hand strongly favors the carrots approach. Coercive diplomacy has been the unrelenting American posture toward Iran for 30 years. It hasn’t worked. As for more militant actions, it is widely appreciated that the US armed forces oppose a third war in the region. This makes the threat of military action not credible, and pretending otherwise is imprudent. The most recent US National Intelligence Estimate, moreover, stated with at least “moderate confidence” that Iran does not now have a nuclear weapons program.

That evidence does not mean the United States should do nothing. In fact, a powerful logic suggests improving the bilateral relationship to deal more effectively with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the simmering conflicts in the Levant. Realism about US-Iran relations reveals a number of such common interests. Engagement rather than confrontation is also likely to yield more favorable results for Israeli security, as earlier attempts at a “grand bargain” – notably, an entreaty from Tehran to Washington in 2003 that was ignored – clearly indicate.

On the nuclear question, an idea called the MIT Plan recommends that an international consortium manage Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle. The plan has been widely vetted technically and politically, and could serve as the basis for a new set of direct and equitable negotiations. Such ideas for cooperation will have no traction inside Iran if the old sticks keep reappearing, however. History suggests that the more belligerent the United States is, the more rigid Iran will be. More coercion is not only demonstrably ineffective, but likely spurs the sorts of reactions in Tehran that the international community abhors.

The Obama administration needn’t rush its new policy (although Obama should respond to President Ahmadinejad’s letter of congratulations soon). The administration must remember that coercion has been an abject failure at every stage of engagement. If the mantra of change has any meaning in Obama’s foreign policy, the Persian Gulf is the place to realize it.

John Tirman is principal research scientist and executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. He is a signer of the Joint Expert’s Statement on Iran. This oped appeared first in the Boston Globe.




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