July 21, 2008

Ehteshami, Redaelli: “Now is the time to talk.”

At a Stanley Foundation briefing last Wednesday, a panel of European-based Iran experts weighed in on the current state of affairs, including the recent ‘surge’ in diplomacy. Stressing engagement, Anoush Ehteshami, Head of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in Britain, and Riccardo Redaelli, Director of the Middle East Program at the Landau Network-Centro Volta (LNCV), spoke on ‘US Strategy toward Iran.’

Although Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s saber-rattling is well and widely known, and relations between Iran and the West have soured even more since he was sworn in August of 2005, “This time is the time to speak,” Redaelli stated.

Iran has been ready for direct negotiations, but the US has been quite reluctant – until now. There is growing pressure on both sides to negotiate, which makes the announcement that Undersecretary of State William Burns would be traveling to Geneva to participate in the July 19 negotiations with Iran that much more important.

Mistrust is at an all-time high, however, and has created doubts both within Iran and the US about whether the other will take the needed steps. The states must use all possible means to understand each other, as they both have pragmatic interests and “converging strategic needs.” Be tough, Redaelli states, but not illogical.

The US must use friends and allies to welcome Iran into the fray – Isolation only helps the more radical elements in Tehran, and it is high time for the US to change its policies. Redaelli acknowledges that dealing with Iranians is difficult, but it is not impossible (he quipped that the West does deal with the French).

Ehteshami described how, since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the US has found setting an Iran policy to be challenging. Thus, their policy options have been reduced to either “no policies, or bad ones.” In the post-2003 political climate, the US has had 4 functional categories for policy options: ignore, contain, confront, or engage.

Ignoring Iran has gotten the US nowhere; Michael Kraig, the Stanley Foundation’s Director of Policy Analysis and Dialogue and moderator of the panel, noted that even Vice President Dick Cheney said some years ago that by blocking themselves from accessing Iranian oil and gas, Americans have “shot [them]selves in the foot.” Containing Iran has failed – the only containment that has occurred is on Washington itself, not Tehran. In the meantime, Iran has rebuilt relations with neighbors and Europe.

Confrontation has been “in the mix,” but not for a while; Ehteshami notes that he is baffled by the idea of ‘strategic’ attacks on Iran by US and Israel, that it will lead to much worse. Thus, he states, engagement is the only policy option left. It is not an easy option, he acknowledges, and is certainly the ‘riskiest’ of all the categories, but the US must accept some “back-falls.”

The panelists described how it is not possible for the 2003 ‘grand bargain’ proposal from Iran to be re-visited. One reason is because in 2005, the Iranians re-proposed the bargain, pledging their readiness to open up on Hezbollah and Iraq. According to Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator under President Khatami, the Iranian government was ready to relinquish all but 20 centrifuges. Again, Washington shot the idea down. Ehteshami told of how the Iranians were offended by the ‘03 and ‘05 responses (as were the Swiss, who delivered the proposal to the Americans as part of their role in handling US affairs in Iran), and thus today, the state’s leaders – including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – are unwilling to revisit the old offer, but are ready to begin negotiations. He stressed the importance of looking forward, not back.

Ehteshami described many Westerners assume there is blanket support for the nuclear program in Iran. However, many don’t support it. There is a considerable difference between acceptance of the power plants (such as at Bushehr) and the nuclear program – on the whole, he infers, Iranians do not believe the government should seek nuclear weapons. A June opinion poll with a sample of 35,000 people asked if Iran should accept the P5+1 package; more than 70% said the government should accept without condition, 8-13% said it should not.

Towards the end, Ehteshami reminded the audience that Iranians love the American people; once the US opens, things will be better.

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