Washington, DC –The merits of engaging Iran were debated by panelists last week at the launching of the Atlantic Council Iran Task Force’s second publication, ‘Strategically Lonely’ Iran Exploits Opportunities for Regional Influence. The brief’s author and non-resident Senior Fellow Barbara Slavin joined Council Chairman Senator Chuck Hagel in urging the United States to focus on human rights and pursue engagement with Iran in areas of mutual interest. Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, Atlantic Council Board Director, argued that engaging Iran could undermine efforts to pressure Iran regarding its nuclear program.
“Obama has really pivoted entirely from engagement now to containment and sanctions,” said Slavin, “I think the US can be a little more creative in this area.” She urged the US and Iran explore areas of mutual interest. “If we can make some progress with Iran on this issue of Afghanistan, it may be easier to talk to Iran about the nuclear issue, human rights, and other issues that we care about in the region,” said Slavin. Hagel agreed, stating that if the United States does not engage on common interests with Iran, it “will never get to the differences,” like the nuclear issue.
Slavin writes that the US must evaluate whether pressuring Iran on its nuclear program and isolating the country is worth the cost of blocking efforts that threaten Afghanistan’s stability and economic success, as well as that of the region. She warned that measures to isolate Iran, such as blocking regional trade routes and pipelines through the country, also have eliminated possible points of leverage. “If you want a country not to be an outlier in the international system, you have to give them assets that they are not willing to jeopardize,” she said.
Eizenstat, however, was more critical of pursuing engagement while the US seeks to pressure Iran on its nuclear program. “We can’t have it both ways on the nuclear issue,” he said, arguing that US engagement with Iran at this time could “send a signal with respect to the nuclear program that somehow [the US] is letting up the pressure.” Instead, Eizenstat said, “We need to have the strongest front possible with our allies [and] with other countries.”
Hagel disagreed. “I’ve always believed that engagement is not appeasement,” he said. “Engagement is not weakness.” Slavin also countered that “engagement doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game for every issue with Iran.”
Audience members raised concerns that engaging Iran could undermine the Green Movement, but Slavin was adamant in her response that the US “can walk and chew gum at the same time” by engaging the Iranian government while supporting human rights. She highlighted the UN Human Rights Council’s vote last week to establish a human rights monitor on Iran and President Obama’s third Norooz message in which he directly addressed Iran’s human rights situation and named specific political prisoners.
Emphasizing that the Iranian government may actually be more vulnerable to human rights pressure, Slavin concluded, “Human rights is more important in some ways than the nuclear issue right now.”