A Kinder, Gentler Iran Policy?

After an initial period of putting policy-makers in place, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is slowly rolling out its strategy for dealing with Iran. But the process is a work in progress, said several experts at a policy conference here, happy to dole out advice for what the administration’s next moves should be.

One thing is certain from the slow pace of Obama’s Iran policy: the idea of a “grand bargain” – a set of broad reforms that would, at one fell swoop, reconcile a myriad of issues – has gone by the wayside. It has become clear that that the Obama administration is pursuing incremental reforms to the relationship.

“In a universal discussion, it is a canard and a snare to think about a ‘grand bargain’,” said Thomas Pickering, a well-respected former U.N. ambassador and former undersecretary of state, at a briefing on Capitol Hill hosted by the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC). Instead, Pickering proposed a “grand agenda,” where all issues are on the table, but not tied to each other.

Obama first pledged to engage Iran on the campaign trail last year and has since reiterated that position by directing statements to Tehran with a subtlety that was badly lacking in the black-and-white rhetoric of the George W. Bush administration, which made Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil.”

Those who oppose such engagement often frame it in terms of the reportedly speedy development of Iran’s nuclear program, which critics allege is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons, though the Iranians steadfastly deny that claim.

But at the MEPC briefing Thursday, several experts on U.S.-Iran relations warned against basing engagement solely on the nuclear issue.

“The nuclear program is not the sum total of U.S. concerns about Iran,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert with the Congressional Research Service, recalling that Iran had twice suspended nuclear enrichment in the first half of this decade, and the negligible changes the moves had on relations with Washington.

But even without the sole focus on the nuclear issue, it will certainly figure at the top of any agenda, and Pickering had advice to offer as to how those talks should go down.

“The centerpiece of our nuclear policy to Iran has to be adequate inspection,” he said. He said that “zero tolerance” for Iranian nuclear enrichment – the policy of the Bush administration which did little to curb Iran’s program – was a “recipe for disaster.”

Last week, a step was taken in that direction when the Obama administration announced that it would be joining Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China at the negotiating table with Iran, in order to discuss the nuclear issue. The move was welcomed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though, as always, with the caveat that engagement be “honest.”

On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad announced that he was preparing an offer for the West to resolve differences on the nuclear program At the MEPC briefing, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), Trita Parsi, who advocates engagement, said that the first indicator of the offer being serious will be whether or not it is made public. Parsi said that serious negotiations of this sort must hashed out in private.

In negotiations, Pickering suggested applying the additional protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which calls for safeguards, as well as an inspections regime similar to that used in Iraq in conjunction with monitoring of personnel involved in nuclear science.

However, the “nuclear discussion” would come “in due course,” said Pickering. The panel was in universal agreement that Iran is not sufficiently far along in developing a weapon that negotiations need take an unnatural pace.

But the flap with Israel’s new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, illustrates that Israel may not have the patience for slow engagement with Iran. Hard-liners in Israel have long taken the view that Iran’s program is advanced, with the bomb just out of reach, and that such a weapon in Iranian hands would prove an existential threat to the Jewish State.

In an interview with the Atlantic Monthly‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, himself a veteran of the Israeli Army, Netanyahu said that he could not let this threat develop without acting.

“The American president, [Netanyahu] said, must stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – and quickly – or an imperiled Israel may be forced to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities itself,” wrote Goldberg at the end of last month.

Last Sunday on a radio program, Israeli President Shimon Peres affirmed that Israel was ready to attack Iran if Ahmadinejad didn’t drop his countries nuclear ambitions. “We’ll strike him,” Peres said.

But on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a class of Marine Corps students that an Israeli strike against Iran would have negative consequences, including “cement[ing Iran’s] determination to have a nuclear program” and creating among Iranians an “undying hatred of whoever hits them.”

Even without Israel’s ticking clock, there are still concerns that negotiations to resolve disputes cannot be drawn out indefinitely.

Katzman said that grander gestures by the U.S. would probably wait until after Iran’s presidential elections in June.

But Parsi warned that, though “atmospheres and realities, and the political landscape on Capitol Hill have changed” in favor of trusting Obama’s program and giving him time to operate – noting that new rounds of sanctions that could potentially damage negotiating positions were unlikely – “[that] reality will probably not last very, very long. Some progress needs to be made for the president to have the confidence of Congress.”

Pickering suggested some early, small “unilateral steps” that the U.S. could take, including returning consular officials to Iran; swearing off covert action to destabilize Iran; and allowing for direct airline flights from Iran to the U.S.

While avoiding great fanfare, Pickering said it was “time to move things to official channels, which is what [Iran’s supreme leader, Ali] Khamenei has called for.”

Pickering advised opening as many diplomatic channels as possible and giving those in talks ample room to “venture.”

A new report released Thursday by John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies titled “A New Approach to Iran” echoed these sentiments, warning against the “strategy of encirclement – prodding other regional powers to line up behind a coercive approach” evidenced during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Jerusalem.

Instead, Tirman urged the administration to take a “‘big leap,’ a bold set of American initiatives that will send a clear signal to Iran about our good intentions, and create the means by which a productive relationship and negotiation can go forward.”

The report suggested “a new discourse toward Iran, one of due respect and trust building,” that includes lifting of most unilateral sanctions, normalizing relations as soon as possible, seeking “innovative solutions” on nuclear development, and addressing regional security concerns in a multilateral forum, among other steps.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.