President George W. Bush has succeeded in convincing many of America’s European allies to tighten sanctions against Iran to inhibit its nuclear program. He has also reiterated that he prefers negotiations to end the impasse with Tehran but that "all options" remain on the table, a clear threat to use military force if all else fails.
One might well wonder what precisely Bush means when he refers to negotiations, as none are underway involving the United States, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also asserted recently that there is no point in talking to Iran because there is nothing to talk about. It might be churlish to suggest that an unwillingness to engage in dialogue over issues that are being portrayed as vital to the national interest can only lead to eventual resolution by force of arms, hardly a desirable solution for anyone.
If Bush and Condi are wondering what to do about Iran, they might consider an alternative to war. At present, Iran has few incentives to cooperate with the United States over Iraq. The lack of any incentives has been exacerbated by the warlike rhetoric coming out of Washington and the absence of anything resembling an American policy toward the Islamic Republic or the region. It is necessary to start with the assumption that the current Iraq policy is a failure. The "surge" can only buy time for a political framework to be constructed, something that has not happened and currently appears highly unlikely given the high level of hostility between the Shi’ite militias and the increasing distancing of the Sunnis from the central government. If Iraq continues to ignore America’s prodding to become a model democracy, then the security provided by the surge of 158,000 troops has been little more than a temporary success, if that.
It must also be conceded that the policy toward Iran has been a failure. There has, in fact, been no U.S. policy to speak of, only allegations about Iranian behavior leading to threats. There has been a series of uncoordinated responses to developing situations but no comprehensive and realistic security strategy for the entire region running from Lebanon in the West to Afghanistan in the East, something urged by the recently dismissed Adm. William Fallon.
U.S. policy toward Iran must accept that Iran is a rational player driven by self interest. It must deal with four fundamental questions: What does Iran intend to do in Iraq? Does Iran seek to export its Islamic revolution? Will Iran support the insurgency inside Iraq to entangle U.S. forces? Do Iran and the U.S. have common interests in Iraq? Iran appears to have no real prospect of being able to export its religious revolution to Iraq even if it wished to do so. It clearly seeks a stable though politically weakened Iraq that will not threaten it militarily and that will lead to the expeditious departure of U.S. forces. Both Washington and Tehran want the same things for Iraq stability and predictability.
U.S. pressure on Tehran has been extremely counterproductive, aiding only the conservatives who support hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new parliament is also more supportive of confrontation in the foreign policy arena, though its newly elected speaker Ali Larijani is believed to be amenable to compromise. Iran meanwhile continues to expand a nuclear program that could ultimately lead to the development of weapons while the U.S. lacks resources to respond effectively. As Iran and Iraq should not be viewed in isolation, a new paradigm for the entire region is essential.
The United States should have several strategic objectives relating to Iran and Iraq, but it first must accept the principle of diplomatic engagement with Iran based on no preconditions. This was the essential message of the bipartisan Iraq Studies Group (ISG), a conclusion that was rejected by the Bush administration. Currently, the United States does not actually talk to Iran. An Iranian proposal to settle all outstanding problems was made through the Swiss embassy in 2003 but was rejected by the White House. It has been reported that Iran also signaled its willingness to negotiate through its diplomats based in Afghanistan. President Ahmadinejad has offered to discuss bilateral problems, but his approaches to the Bush administration have been ridiculed.
Seeking a diplomatic solution is not to surrender on fundamental issues, nor does it suggest that Iran should be given carte blanche, but the playing field should start out even so reciprocal steps can then be taken to build confidence and reduce tensions. There are serious issues that must be resolved, including Iranian nuclear ambitions, the alleged interference in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threats against neighboring Sunni Arab states and Israel. The U.S., for its part, must satisfy Iranian security concerns and stake out a path that will lead to Iran’s becoming an accepted and unexceptional member of the world community. The final objective of U.S.-Iran dialogue should be a normalization of relations between the United States and Iran to permit negotiation and compromise on all outstanding areas of disagreement, including the situation inside Iraq. Establishing a new security framework for the Middle East that would reduce tensions, eliminate regional threats, and guarantee an uninterrupted flow of oil and gas would be major incentives for Washington. As the United States is now militarily dominant in the region, it should feel empowered to take the first steps, possibly by explicitly ending its threatening language and giving security guarantees to Iran if it does not proceed with obtaining technical mastery of the fuel cycle for its nuclear program. As experts believe that control of the fuel cycle would permit easy development of weapons-grade isotopes, it would be a key concession by Iran, and the security guarantee would be a significant and commensurate offer by the United States.
Given the current state of Western anxiety about Tehran and its intentions and Iranian concerns about the threat posed by the U.S., everything would have to be based on reciprocal actions subject to detailed and intrusive bilateral verification. Everything should be on the negotiating table, including Iranian support of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, nuclear weapons programs, and the scale of legitimate Iranian interaction with its neighbors, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a first step in attempting to shift the regional strategic balance, the U.S. should support elements in Israel who are willing to engage with Syria to normalize relations. Currently, the United States is blocking Israelis who seek a negotiated solution with Syria, which Damascus reportedly is keen to obtain. An agreement between Tel Aviv and Damascus underwritten by the United States would end Syrian support for Hezbollah and Hamas and would also perforce end the strategic relationship with Iran. It would, at a stroke, close the overland route between Iran and Lebanon that permits militants to move across country and obtain new supplies of weapons.
Without the Syrian and Lebanese nexus, Iran would continue to be a major regional power, but its reach and ability to meddle would be much reduced. At that point, the outstanding issues could be negotiated and hopefully resolved one by one, recognizing that the United States’ presence in the Middle East is a given for the foreseeable future and that Iran is a regional power with legitimate national interests. It is most important to realize that the United States and Iran actually share an interest in doing whatever is necessary to help bring about a stable Iraq. With normalized relations, American soft power could have a major impact on Iran, which has a young population that is attracted to Western culture and liberties.
While it is unrealistic to assume that Iran and the United States can resolve all of their differences, it is equally unrealistic to assume that sustained and serious negotiation will bear no fruit as the neoconservatives persistently argue in their case against Tehran. Iran is, at the end of the day, like any other nation. It is not suicidal, and it is responsive to the same needs and priorities that drive any modern nation state. Recent opinion polls clearly demonstrate that the Iranian people are far from anti-Western, quite the contrary. Iran is resentful of its status as a pariah, which has been self-inflicted by leaders like Ahmadinejad, and there is considerable evidence that many in its political leadership would like to make it a more "normal" country. It can only do so if the threat from Washington subsides. The United States likewise, cast in the role of the school bully ever since the events of 9/11, is sorely in need of a change of direction and a refurbishing of its image. That change of direction could be signaled by a resolution of the issues dividing Washington from Tehran, a troubled relationship that has been long viewed as one of the most intractable in the world.