US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Take a Strategic Approach to Iran

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The Challenge

It is time to develop a broader, more inclusive approach to US policy towards Iran. The past years’ focus on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability has led to a hardening of policy views and a narrowing of policy options.  Iran’s nuclear activities are of grave concern to the US and the international community, but the challenge Iran poses today is even greater: Iran can be the spoiler in the region exacerbating sectarian tensions and undermining the search for sustainable security for the diverse countries of the region.  A strategic approach would attempt to find a more comprehensive modus vivendi with a country of great weight in a volatile region, to bring it into compliance on its nuclear activities, to prevent it from creating more regional tension, and to identify discreet areas for cooperation on matters of shared concern.

The Context

Iran presents the Administration with a “wicked” problem – almost any part of a solution creates more problems and predicaments.   Washington and Tehran have a long track record of missed opportunities and miscommunications; when one party is ready to try a new tack, the other party is either deeply suspicious, or distracted by other priorities.  A 2009 overture by President Obama was not reciprocated because of long-held suspicions of US intentions, and the domestic political turmoil in Iran caused by contested election results.  Domestic politics have also limited the room for maneuver of leaders whose public rhetoric often suggests an open-ended enmity, not susceptible to compromise or resolution.  Iran’s hubris, its revolutionary ambition, and its opaque decision making process further complicate the situation.  

The window between President Obama’s election and the mid-2013 presidential election in Iran creates an opportunity to reduce tensions and create diplomatic momentum before Iran has made a decision to cross the strategic threshold to full nuclear weapons capability, and while its leaders are deeply concerned about the economic pressures imposed by sanctions.   The political window is probably narrower than the technical window;  most experts believe Iran is still many months if not more away from a critical juncture in its nuclear activities that would compel new policy decisions.

On and off for the past decade, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have engaged Iran in discussions about its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).  In 2012, meetings were held in Baghdad, Istanbul, Moscow , and further meetings are possible in the coming weeks.  The European Union chairs the meetings, which are useful but not sufficient to achieve progress.  Several of the key players would welcome a US-Iran track to focus Iran’s attention on its long-term interests.

The other core component of international strategy towards Iran has been increasingly powerful sanctions against Iran’s leadership, industry and banking sectors.  The stated aim of international sanctions – to  pressure Iran to restrict its nuclear program  – has not produced the desired results.   Sanctions nonetheless have made a significant impact on Iran’s economy. A European oil embargo, which became effective in July 2012, is a major factor in cutting Iran’s daily oil exports to approximately 1 million barrels per day from 2.5 million barrels.  Because oil exports are responsible for about 70 percent of the Iranian government’s revenue, Iran is suffering from a serious loss of hard currency. The result is a plummeting rial, which lost about 75 percent of its value since 2011, sending shockwaves through Iranian society and causing rioting among merchants. Many consumers find it difficult to buy basic food items. Meat and chicken, for example, have become unaffordable for many Iranians, and despite waivers on medical and humanitarian goods, anecdotal evidence suggests that sanctions have created genuine hardship in the health sector as well.

Other sanctions, such as those imposed against international firms selling technology to Iran to filter and manipulate the public’s internet access, have been less effective.  Despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to place a priority on internet freedom, Iran’s officials have become masters at limiting internet access, monitoring emails and social networking and using technology to identify and imprison opponents. 

Sporadic efforts to engage Iran on policies towards two of Iran’s neighbors – Iraq and Afghanistan – have also not produced any important results in terms of building trust or greater understanding of the two countries’ interests.  In Iraq, the direct competition for influence over the government of Nuri al-Maliki rendered talks unproductive.  On Afghanistan, an overture to inform Iran about the planned withdrawal of international forces foundered when Iran determined that its greater interest was to try to prevent a new strategic framework agreement between Washington and Kabul (which went in effect in July 2012).

Iran’s Challenge

The key player today in determining whether engaging Washington bilaterally is in Iran’s interest is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.   For much of his political history, Khamenei has believed the United States’ primary objective is regime change.  The Arab uprisings and Washington’s support for the Syrian opposition also led Iranian political elites and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders to believe that the United States aims to diminish Iran’s regional influence and shift the regional balance of power in favor of Iran’s foes – Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.

Khamenei has successfully marginalized those within the regime who do not share his views, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had been receptive to making a deal with the West. Unlike former President Mohammad Khatami, who believed Iran should develop better relations with Western states, Ahmadinejad had different motivations; he believed better relations with the United States would gain him popularity at home. But now, the president and his political faction have been pushed to the sidelines and are unlikely to be allowed to run a candidate for president in elections scheduled for June 2013. This removes a powerful dissenting voice against those unwilling to make compromises on the nuclear program. Others, who also would be inclined to apply pressure for a deal, such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, are also too politically weak to make a difference.

Yet in late 2012, senior policy circles in Tehran may be signalling a willingness to engage.  Driven presumably by sanctions pressures, President Obama’s reelection and a genuine desire by some iranian national security figures to close the “nuclear file,” several recent statements by officials to the effect that talking to America is not “taboo” suggest that Iran’s inner circle may be ready for a new approach.  Whether the Supreme Leader himself is on board remains to be seen, but this may be a new and rare moment of opportunity to revisit the terms of a plan for iranian compliance on nuclear matters, coupled with a new bilateral channel to address additional issues.

Pragmatic Steps

  1. The United States can take the high road, with renewed focus on achieving a real breakthrough in this long impasse through peaceful means.  A tone and approach that are less punitive, more respectful of Iran’s legitimate rights and responsibilities, could help the Iranians overcome their deep suspicions about US objectives.  The President should make clear that the US believes that a mutually acceptable arrangement on enrichment and inspections is achievable, and would address both Iranian and international interests.
  2. Make clear that a new bilateral track on a wide agenda does not undermine the existing P-5 Plus One Track, which embodies the UN’s convictions and commitments.  The US can revalidate the nuclear track and Europe’s key role and pursue the bilateral approach at the same time. 
  3. Prepare to lift some sanctions that are more symbolic than substantive to show good faith; even if Iran responds negatively, it can demonstrate the beginning of a process.
  4. Develop an agenda of topics for bilateral meetings that address broad regional security concerns, and Afghanistan in particular.  Engaging Iran on Syria or Palestine may be too contentious since the parties’ positions are deeply incompatible.  But Afghanistan remains a more appropriate topic, and a wide-angle discussion of Middle East trends would also be a useful starting point.
  5. Support and promote more robust exchanges between Iranian and American counterparts in key areas of education, science and technology, and public health as worthy endeavors on their own merits and as confidence building measures to build more trust at the popular level. 



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