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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bitterlemons-international Middle East Roundtable: Prospects for US-Iran talks, December 4, 2008

bitterlemons-international.org
Middle East Roundtable


Edition 45 Volume 6 - December 04, 2008

Prospects for US-Iran talks

• Engaging Iran effectively - Chuck Freilich
Assuming the US insists on a cessation of enrichment during engagement, Israel would support any agreement reached.

• Diplomacy will not yield results - Joshua Muravchik
The idea that two countries can lay to rest their dispute by talking is a myth.

• Why diplomacy and sanctions don't mix - Trita Parsi
It's not the threat or imposition of new sanctions that will change Iranian behavior, but rather the offer to lift existing sanctions.

• Obama risking more deadlock - Sadegh Zibakalam
Obama should assume he will have to deal with Ahmadinezhad or a similar hardliner during the next four years.

Engaging Iran effectively
Chuck Freilich

Unless effective measures are taken soon, Iran will have a first nuclear bomb within a year according to worst case assessments, or a few years under more optimistic ones. President-elect Barack Obama is publicly committed to a policy of engagement with Iran. The question is no longer whether to engage, but how to do so.

Iran has good strategic reasons for seeking a nuclear capability and it is questionable whether any combination of inducements, positive or negative, can elicit a change in its policies. We will only know, however, if a sincere and comprehensive attempt is made. Time is the biggest problem.

Firstly, the timeline may now be such that there simply is no longer a sufficient interval for an engagement process. Assuming the new administration needs a few months to put its policies in place, the United States will only be ready for engagement in the late spring or early summer. If the worst-case scenarios are correct, this would leave only half a year for dialogue and in reality far less, for agreement would have to be reached well in advance. Conversely, this timeline would allow the US to begin dialogue only after Iran's elections in June, and thus hopefully avoid the need to deal with and possibly legitimize its radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad.

Secondly, if Iran agrees to engagement at all, it will clearly seek to do so in the most protracted way possible. When it comes to playing for time through negotiations, Iran has few peers. It is thus essential that the US insist on a cessation of enrichment for the duration of talks as a condition for engagement. Otherwise engagement merely becomes a cover for completion of the nuclear program.

To be effective, engagement must be conducted from a position of strength and as part of an integrated, graduated and parallel series of steps. Engagement and sanctions should be viewed as mutually complementary, not exclusive, and while preparing to engage, the new administration should also lay the ground for increased pressure. To this end, it should make a final effort to get Russia and China on board for Security Council sanctions, but build a consensus with US allies on a broad extra-UN sanctions regime as a fallback. Some of the new sanctions should already be in force prior to engagement and some would be added, as required, as a means of further ratcheting up the pressure.

In the event that this combined "carrot and stick" approach does not elicit the desired change, the US should make it clear that a further major increase in pressure is imminent, beginning with a naval blockade, preferably multilateral but unilateral if necessary and possibly culminating in direct military action.

Bravado aside, Iran is highly vulnerable to international sanctions, certainly to a blockade, and the very threat might be sufficient to change its strategic calculus. Moreover, the possibility of further unilateral US action, following the Iraqi experience, is likely to prove sufficient to gain European support for severe sanctions and possibly even Chinese and Russian support in the Security Council. To this end, the US might also offer to address some of the latter's major concerns, such as Russian opposition to NATO expansion and deployment of the anti-missile system in Europe, in exchange for support on Iran.

Although there are numerous issues on the US-Iran agenda, such as Iran's support for terrorism, role in Iraq and opposition to the Middle East peace process, the nuclear issue is of such overwhelming importance that it should be given clear precedence and, if necessary, be treated as a stand-alone issue. In exchange for ending its military nuclear program, under strict safeguards, Iran should be offered a "grand bargain" by the US, including bilateral rapprochement and an end to the policy of regime change.

Iran may very well reject engagement and all inducements, as it has in the past. The exigencies of international politics today are such, however, that the US will only be able to pursue severe measures, let alone future military action, if it demonstrates to domestic and world opinion that it has exhausted all other options.

Many in Israel will be alarmed by US engagement of Iran. Indeed, some will fear abandonment in the face of a potentially existential threat. Others clearly favor engagement, primarily as a way-station toward harder measures, but also in the hope, forlorn as it may be, that a deal can be worked out that will forestall the need for them. Assuming the US effectively addresses the time factor by insisting on a cessation of enrichment during engagement, Israel would have a major interest in its success and would likely support any agreement reached.- Published 4/12/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Chuck Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. Currently he is a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and a Schusterman fellow.

Diplomacy will not yield results
Joshua Muravchik

The Obama administration will surely talk directly with representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So did the Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter administrations. These talks will produce nothing, however, just as those earlier efforts did (and as the talks conducted by the EU-3 this decade and the EU's diplomatic outreach to Tehran in the 1990s, called "Critical Dialogue", which was sweetened with material incentives to Iran, did).

Why am I so sure? The idea that two countries that are at odds can lay to rest their dispute by talking and resolving their misunderstandings is a myth. I cannot think of a single case in which this has happened. Can anyone name one?

Yes, enemies do sometimes reconcile, as did Egypt and Israel, the United States and the People's Republic of China and the United States and the Soviet Union. But in none of these cases did the crucial breakthrough come as a result of conversations between the parties. Rather, in each case, dictatorial rulers first decided to undertake a drastic shift in policy. After that, negotiations served to work out the details.

President Anwar Sadat decided to end Egypt's conflict with Israel. Then he proved he meant it by traveling to Jerusalem. Then a treaty was hammered out at Camp David. Similarly, Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai decided that the USSR was China's most threatening enemy and so they decided to draw closer to the US. Secret negotiations with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, capped off by a painstakingly choreographed visit to China by President Richard Nixon, formalized the new policy. As for the ending of the Cold War, the various summits and negotiations were secondary. What was decisive was Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's decision that the USSR should no longer see itself as the enemy of the "capitalist" world.

Throughout the Cold War there were voices in the West arguing that if only we would talk more with Soviet rulers we could settle our differences. In practice, every US president--Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush--met with Soviet heads of government. Not one of those meetings yielded beneficial results, and a few, notably Kennedy's, which emboldened the Communists to erect the Berlin Wall, and Nixon's, which ceded nuclear supremacy to the Kremlin, were downright harmful.

The Cold War was symmetrical in that each side tried to best the other. But it was not symmetrical in origins. Revolutionary ideology drove the Soviet Union to seek global supremacy. When the US grasped this in 1947-8, it fought back. Thus, the enmity did not result from "misunderstanding" but just the opposite. Virtually the moment Gorbachev decided to end the USSR's struggle against the West, the "war" ended. There had never been any desire for hostility on the western side.

Much the same is true in the current clash between Iran and the US. The US has no designs against Iran and no desire for conflict. Iran, however, has ambitions to spread the "global Islamic revolution" and dominate the Persian Gulf. Toward these ends, it seeks nuclear weapons. The US resists these ambitions in order to defend itself and its allies. Iran has an official slogan, "death to America", posted on walls and chanted at Friday "prayers". No one in America chants "death to Iran".

If Iran relinquished its ambitions for regional dominance and global revolution, and sought only to develop its economy, enhance the lives of its people and live in peace, the conflict with the US would be over automatically. Negotiations at that point would be easy and largely technical: how many consulates to open here and there, the modalities of renewed commerce, etc. When Iran's leaders are ready for such a change in course, there are a thousand ways they can let Washington know, ranging from secret diplomatic channels to speeches splashed across newspaper headlines. (Sadat revealed his new direction in a speech to parliament and a television interview.)

If there were something Iran wanted from the US for which it was willing to trade away its imperial and revolutionary ambitions, it would have made that known long ago. Until Iran abandons those goals, no diplomatic acrobatics will narrow the gap between the two countries any more than did the negotiations between Washington and Tokyo in the 1930s that ended on the day of Pearl Harbor. Then, the US opposed Japan's ambitions to create a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", i.e., a regional empire much like the one Tehran dreams of today.

Eventually the US and Iran will be reconciled. This will happen not as a result of diplomacy but in one of three ways: a change of heart by Iranian rulers, replacement of the Iranian regime, or in the way that the US and Japan finally became friends.- Published 4/12/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Joshua Muravchik's newest book The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East will be published by Encounter Books in April.

Why diplomacy and sanctions don't mix
Trita Parsi

Change often occurs at a faster pace than people can comprehend. That is certainly the case with the quickly shifting political realities in Washington on Iran. In less than 50 days, America will be led by a president who made dialogue with Tehran a campaign promise--and yet he won. Perhaps even more surprising, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington failed--in the middle of an election year-- to convince the US Congress to pass a resolution calling for a naval blockade of Iran, even though the resolution had more than 250 co-sponsors.

The debate in Washington is no longer whether to negotiate with Iran, but how, when and in what sequence such negotiations should take place. This, however, does not mean that talks will occur or that they will succeed. This is partly due to an unchanging feature of the political landscape in Washington--the reliance on economic sanctions to look tough and to gain leverage.

President-elect Barack Obama, who told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee earlier this year that he stood firm on his call for negotiations with Iran and his promise to do away with "self-defeating preconditions", has sought to balance his pro-dialogue position by adopting a strong appetite for additional economic sanctions against Iran.

While a senator, he was the original co-sponsor of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2008, which would have intensified existing sanctions and paved the way for additional divestment. Obama argued at the time that sanctions were an integral part of any diplomatic strategy. "In addition to an aggressive, direct, and principled diplomatic effort, we must continue to increase economic pressure on Iran," he said in a statement. Some of Obama's advisors have taken this a step further and argued that sticks--meaning sanctions--would have to come first in any carrot-and-stick approach to Iran.

Obama is of course absolutely right that any successful approach to Iran must include a combination of incentives and disincentives. And sanctions can theoretically provide the US with additional leverage over Iran. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it fails to recognize that existing sanctions already provide the US with significant leverage. But this leverage can only be utilized in the context of a negotiation. Sanctions can play a critical function in a US negotiation with Iran if, that is, Washington is willing to do away with them in return for significant Iranian behavioral changes.

That willingness has thus far not existed in Washington. The definition of leverage in the Bush administration was one's ability to get something for nothing. That approach has clearly failed; it does not characterize negotiations, but rather ultimatums and threats. In negotiations, you can only get something by giving something. Indeed, it's not the threat or imposition of new sanctions that will change Iranian behavior, but rather the offer to lift existing sanctions. Herein lies America's as yet untapped reservoir of leverage over Iran.

The crux, of course, is that this leverage only can be actualized if Washington and Tehran find their way to the negotiation table. And that is why the inclination to impose new sanctions prior to the commencement of talks can be so devastating to Obama's agenda: Imposing new sanctions on Iran--whether they be congressional sanctions or executive orders--will only reduce the prospects for diplomacy by poisoning the atmosphere and further increasing mistrust between the two capitals, which in turn defeats America's ability to tap into its reservoir of leverage over Iran in the first place.

The same is of course true for Iran: any effort by Tehran to intensify its efforts to undermine Washington's policies in the region as a means to gain leverage prior to negotiations will only render such talks less likely.

To succeed with his pro-diplomacy agenda, Obama must not only avoid the fallacy that Washington doesn't have leverage over Iran and recognize the value of offering to lift existing sanctions in return for Iranian policy changes. He must also resist the temptation to undermine the path to negotiations by imposing new sanctions before talks have begun--including resisting pressure from domestic constituencies whose motivation for sanctions historically has precisely been to prevent a US- Iranian diplomatic breakthrough to begin with.

The combination of incentives and disincentives that will succeed in advancing US interest vis-a-vis Iran is one in which diplomacy is at the center and sanctions are in the periphery--not the other way around.- Published 4/12/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance--The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US and a silver medal recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Book Award.

Obama risking more deadlock
Sadegh Zibakalam

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian Islamic leaders have observed five US presidents, including Jimmy Carter who was president during the revolution. Two were Democrats and three Republicans.

Does the presence of a Democratic or Republican president make any difference to relations between the two countries? Judging by these five presidents and three decades of hostility between Tehran and Washington, government changes in the White House have made no difference.

The same observation is true of changes in government in Tehran. Hostility toward Washington remained unabated under the pragmatists led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformists led by Mohammad Khatami and the hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, even though the three governments pursued different policies on many issues.

There was, however, one exception. President Khatami pursued a more moderate foreign policy that even included softening Tehran's hitherto belligerent tone toward the US. The move was not reciprocated by US President Bill Clinton; this was a blow to the reformists in Tehran. The opportunity was ultimately destroyed when the hardliners seriously opposed the olive branch Khatami extended to the Americans.

History aside, there are serious obstacles to any rapprochement between the two countries. Although at an early stage in his campaign Obama expressed his desire for "direct and unconditional talks" with Ahmadinezhad, he was forced to deny this statement and replace it with a declaration of willingness to negotiate directly with Iranian leaders, not necessarily Ahmadinezhad. The reason behind Obama's denial is not difficult to understand. It goes back to the root of the dilemma. Ahmadinezhad is hugely unpopular in the United States. His Holocaust denial, calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, speeches at the United Nations General Assembly and remarks in interviews and speeches in the US have all made him a remarkably unpopular figure among many Americans.

This was the backdrop to Obama's denial that he ever suggested negotiating with Ahmadinezhad. In other words, as long as the present Iranian president is in office, US officials, and notably the newly-elected president, understand that there is very little prospect of rapprochement between Iran and the US.

A few days after Obama's victory, in a move that surprised everyone and particularly many in Iran, Ahmadinezhad congratulated him. But nearly a month has gone by, Obama still hasn't replied and it appears that he is in no hurry to do so. In fact, given the extent of the Iranian president's unpopularity in the US, it is plausible that Obama is waiting for the Iranian presidential elections that take place next July, in the hope that Ahmadinezhad will not be reelected, thus generating a moral justification for the US to conduct serious negotiations with his successor.

Better still from Obama's standpoint, if former president Khatami, who is far more sophisticated, moderate and liberal than Ahmadinezhad, is elected, then there would be a real chance for a breakthrough after three decades of stalled relations between the two countries. Hence Obama has not bothered to reply to Ahmadinezhad's message of congratulations, nor for that matter has he mentioned anything about what he intends to do regarding Iran.

Obama is right; there is far more common ground between him and Khatami. But he is taking too many risks. To begin with, although there has been a lot of pressure on Khatami to run, so far he has refused to do so. Many Iranians are still asking whether or not Khatami will stand in presidential elections in seven months time. A second important question is how confident one can be that he would actually win. Then too, many Iranians are wondering if there is any point in voting for Khatami given his overall weak performance during his earlier presidency. In any event, the hardliners will prevent him from effecting a rapprochement with the US in much the same way they did last time.

Taking all this into consideration, and given that thus far Ahmadinezhad appears to have a better chance than most of the other candidates to win the next elections, Obama must not put all his eggs into the "non-Ahmadinezhad basket". Ignoring Ahmadinezhad and hoping to negotiate instead with a more moderate and pragmatic Iranian president risks antagonizing the hardliners in Tehran to the extent that they adopt an even more extreme stand toward the US. They are angry and their pride was hurt when Obama failed to respond to Ahmadinezhad's message. We must not forget that while Ahmadinezhad is greatly admired by the hardliners, even he faces criticism by some of them for congratulating the newly elected US president.

Perhaps the best course of action for Obama regarding Iran would be to assume that he will have to deal with Ahmadinezhad or another similar hardliner during the next four years.- Published 4/12/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of Iranian studies at Tehran University.



Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

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