US Foreign Policy

Engaging Iran: How Broad an Agenda?

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – Over the past week, the revelations of a second, secret nuclear enrichment facility in Iran have altered the tone and content of upcoming talks between the Perm-5 (US, China, Russia, France and the UK) plus 1 (Germany) and Iran.  The international community has rallied around these reports, reinforced by a defiant speech to the UN Assembly by President Ahmedinejad and new missile tests in Iran.  The world is more united in opposition to Iran’s nuclear activities, more suspicious that Iran plans to go beyond the requirements for a peaceful nuclear energy program, and less willing to offer significant concessions absent a new sign of Iran’s desire to cooperate and comply with its international obligations.

At one level, the turn of events has strengthened the US leadership role in managing the challenge of Iran.  President Obama worked quietly and steadily over the spring and summer to change US policy towards missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, which were ostensibly to defeat potential long-range Iranian missile attacks, but were also deeply troublesome in the US-Russian relationship.  With the controversial cancellation of those plans, the Obama Administration won support from Russia and also sent a signal to Iran, by judging that Iran’s missile plans were not a great cause of concern and by asserting that the US had other military options to deal with a potential missile threat.  The dramatic US-French-British revelation, from the G-20 summit, about the secret site in Iran, continued the drumbeat, showing Iran the united front it will face when talks commence in Geneva October 1.

At another level, however, it is less clear if this shift in tone will lead to more satisfactory results than previous efforts.   The latest developments have forced the Obama administration to revert to an earlier stance that is mostly punitive in its logic, rather than carefully calibrated to give Iran new incentives to reconsider its positions.  The new found unity among the major players will be critical if the only course of action is to impose new and more hurtful sanctions on Iran’s economy, most likely focused on banning the import of  refined petroleum products and critical infrastructure needs for its energy industries.  But it makes less likely that a genuinely new process of negotiation, of give and take to nudge Iran closer to international norms, will occur.   The initial promise of the new American president, to imagine a fresh beginning in US-Iran relations, has been undermined by the latest events.

Iran’s leaders may have never had the intention of responding constructively to President Obama’s overtures, although there is some evidence that an important debate occurred inside Iran about the possible benefits of engagement.  The crisis of legitimacy that resulted from deeply flawed national elections in June, and the subsequent violence and crackdown, may have led to a short term tactical decision to engage, in order to give the disaffected public some hope for change in Iran’s fortunes and international reputation.  But the leadership is seriously weakened and will be both distracted by the need to reassert control domestically, and disinclined to give up any of its strategic options, now that its belief that the world is hostile has been reinforced.

The agenda for engagement is now fraught with conceptual confusion.  The nuclear issue is clearly the driver for the talks that begin on October 1.  But Obama’s offer of engagement was premised on a wider view of the stakes for the US, Iran and the international community.  It was trying to draw Iran into a more comprehensive conversation about Iran’s interests and ours:  possibly about stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, or cooperation in health, environment, or other topics where the benefit to Iran would be clear.  It was intended to engage Iran in a more honest discussion of its security, which, over time, could help Iran’s national security leaders take a fresh look at its military requirements for national defense, and ideally persuade it to forgo the nuclear option.  The alarm over the new site and the psychological pressure now placed on Iran make it less likely that that larger conversation will take place, or that Iran will see any advantage in rethinking its security options.

The other source of confusion is regarding which Iranians we are trying to engage.  We see an isolated, ideological ruling regime that continually misreads the international climate and is willfully defiant of international rules and norms.  Yet Iran will send highly skilled diplomats who are experts in international law to argue Iran’s case and defend its rights.  Iran’s people, many of whom voted for candidates other than the incumbent President, would welcome a reduction in tensions and a bridge to the outside world.   Can a diplomatic process – sure to be protracted and difficult – take their interests into account?   

The talks on October 1 are between sovereign states that must work within a protocol that validates the rights of states.   The US and its allies at the talks want to focus on responsibilities as well as rights.  Iran since the revolution has shown deep ambivalence about this discourse among states.  Its representatives go to Geneva with a confounding mix of confidence, defiance, and deep insecurity.  The international community should not confuse its new found solidarity on Iran’s misdeeds with expectations for early success.

 Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project.

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