National Security Network

Advancing Diplomacy Toward Iran

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Report 23 March 2009

Iran Iran Bush administration diplomacy iran President Obama


Last week the next steps in the Obama Administration’s comprehensive approach to Iran were on display, with the President’s video message saying that the U.S. is ready to begin diplomatic engagement. This message follows on a letter sent by President Obama to Iran after initially coming to office and further confirms the Administration’s readiness to engage in diplomatic negotiations. This is a dramatic departure from the approach of the Bush administration and represents a renewed recognition of the importance of diplomacy as a foreign policy tool. However, diplomacy will not be easy and straightforward. The regime’s conservative, slow-moving nature as well as its continued reckless actions of the Iranian regime and the regional strength it gained over recent years will make any negotiations complex and challenging. The mixed response from Iran’s Supreme Leader, which, while indicating that Iran was open to changing its stance toward the U.S., said that the U.S. had to make initial concession, should have been expected. But conservatives – wedded to the Bush administration’s failed and ineffectual approach of regime change – have attacked, saying that Obama’s letter looks “weak” and that Iran’s response shows that Obama’s efforts have failed. Such attacks are reflective of the warped black and white world view that rejected diplomacy as a viable foreign policy tool. After eight years of bluster the conservative approach has failed and Iran has moved further along in their nuclear development. Diplomatic negotiations will be challenging and there is no guarantee that they will be successful, but it is past time that the United States begin using all the foreign policy tools at its disposal, which means talking not just too our allies, but to our adversaries as well.

Obama administration pursues a strategy of engagement with Iran.  In the first months of his presidency, Barack Obama has pursued a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Iran.  This approach was on display last week, as the President used the Iranian New Year to directly speak to the Iranian people and government: “My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect... The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right -- but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization... So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.”  Following the President’s address, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Scholar Karim said that US diplomacy “will undermine (hardliners) and their narrative of a hostile U.S. government bent on oppressing Iran.”  Middle East expert and former top Iran aide during the Carter administration Gary Sick remarked on the Administration’s overall approach: “We've seen nothing like this for as long as I can remember. Almost none of this would have been possible under Bush. It's actually possible that what we are seeing is (gasp) diplomacy, or preparation for it. It includes pressure on Iran, which I think was inevitable, but it potentially allows for much more.”  [President Obama, 3/19/09. McClatchy, 3/20/09. Gary Sick, 3/06/09]

Conservative critique offers nothing but continuation of failed policies.  Conservative commentators have criticized the Obama administration’s early actions toward Iran, pointing instead to the need to continue the failed Bush-era approach. After Obama’s latest address, Bill Kristol said the President “doesn't believe in threats,” “believes that we should speak nicely to our enemies, and carry no stick,” and is wrong for showing respect to the Iranian regime. But Kristol’s ire is rooted in a lack of realism and a dismissive approach toward diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy that was characteristic of the Bush administration’s policy of regime change, which was highly provocative and relied on hollow bluster. This approach failed miserably. In a report for the Brookings Institution, Ray Takeyh and Suzanne Maloney write: “[t]hanks to events of recent years, Tehran now has acquired the means to influence all of the region’s security dilemmas, and it appears unlikely that any of the Arab world’s crises, from the persistent instability in Iraq and Lebanon to security of the Persian Gulf, can be resolved without Iran’s acquiescence or assistance.”  Iran has also drawn closer to reaching nuclear “breakout” capability: it is now operating thousands of centrifuges at its central enrichment plant in Natanz.  Iran’s steady progress has led Mohammed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to call the last five years of efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions a “failure.” [The Weekly Standard, 3/20/09. Brookings Institution, 12/08. NSN Policy Report on Iran. NPR, 3/02/09. LA Times, 12/06/08]

Diplomacy with Iran will be complex and challenging.  As the BBC reports, “President Barack Obama's video message to Iran offering a ‘new beginning’ is an imaginative start to his attempt to improve relations - but huge obstacles remain...” Some elements of Iran’s government will continue reckless behavior, as Human Rights Watch has noted “Iranian officials are unlawfully detaining the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi by holding her without charge.” Another obstacle will be the Iranian regime’s negotiating style, as the AP reports, the “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s response was more than just a dismissive slap at the outreach. It was a broad lesson in the mind-set of Iran's all-powerful theocracy and how it will dictate the pace and tone of any new steps by Obama to chip away at their nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze... ‘It's the first stage of the bargaining in classic Iranian style: Be tough and play up your toughness,’ said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of regional politics at United Arab Emirates University... For Khamenei and his inner circle, that means appearing to stay true to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the political narrative of rejecting the United States. Any quick gestures by the ruling clerics to mend ties with Washington could be perceived by hard-liners as a betrayal of the revolution.  Iran's non-elected leaders also are carefully weighing how any openings — even small ones — could affect the June 12 presidential race between their apparent choice, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and reformists led by a former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi. ‘This is why this will be a very slow, very complicated process between Iran and the United States,’ said Abdulla. ‘Even the theocracy can be pragmatic. When they feel it's in the national interest to reach out to America, they will find a way.’” President Obama recognizes these difficulties, saying “I know that this won't be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences.” President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and NSN advisory board chairman, Les Gelb predicts, “let’s begin the process of negotiations with Iran. It will be hard, long, and painful. But here’s my guess: Iran as a society is more middle class and more prone to democracy than any other country in that part of the world. Within ten years, Iran will be our closest ally in the region.” [BBC, 3/21/09. Reuters, 3/22/09. HRW, 3/13/09. AP, 3/22/09. Barack Obama, 3/20/09. Les Gelb, 3/19/09]


What We’re Reading

A 200 pound truck bomb malfunctioned near a Haifa mall, preventing what would have been one of the largest attacks in recent years.  Kamal Medhat, a senior Fatah representative, was killed in a bombing outside a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.  

NATO says a senior Taliban leader, Maulawi Hassan, has been killed.

Treasury Secretary Geithner revealed his bank plan today.  Stocks overseas rose on expectations, while foreign firms that claim to have expertise American firms lack are eyeing a portion of stimulus money.  

President Obama’s CBS interview looks at an exit strategy for Afghanistan.  The Afghanistan policy review is allegedly delayed over disagreements within the Obama administration over paying “bribes” to factions of the Taliban.

Sweden will not bail out SaabTrade barriers rise worldwide.  China says it will continue buying U.S. debt.

Secretary of State Clinton will travel to Mexico on Wednesday to discuss trade disputes and Mexico’s drug war.  Drug violence spills over into the U.S.

China arrests nearly a hundred Tibetan monks after an attack on a police station and a protest.  China says 89 of the monks turned themselves in.  Apparently bowing to Chinese pressure, South Africa blocks the Dalai Lama from entering the country.

U.S. citizen Naji Hamdan’s arrest by the UAE with alleged U.S. complicity tests detainee policies.

The lone surviving Mumbai gunman is in court.  He admits he is Pakistani.

The Turkish president visits Baghdad, the first such visit from a Turkish head of state in 30 years.

The New York Times looks at Muammar Qaddafi’s leadership of the African Union.

The expulsion of aid groups from Darfur raises fears of worsening humanitarian conditions.

Commentary of the Day

President Obama calls for a new era of service across the United States.

Roger Cohen discusses President Obama’s outreach to Iran and U.S. Israel policy.

The Times of London previews India’s upcoming elections, arguing that a weak government is a better alternative than one that ranges from “corrupt to the outright criminal.”

Les Gelb writes that it’s time to “go to strength” in U.S. foreign policy.

Denise Dresser says that the United States needs to clarify its message to Mexico.

George Soros lays out requirements for the upcoming G-20.

Former US ambassador to Romania Jim Rosapepe examines the current state
of the global economy in the run-up to the G-20 summit, saying “today's
financial crisis is global. The responses – both for both recovery and
reform – need to be global.”