Iran-US 'constructive engagement'? 5 things to watch for
Iran has been sending a record flurry of signals that it wants to reengage with 'a changed world.' What are the key issues that the US and Iran must grapple with?
President.ir/Courtesy via Reuters
Never before in the 34-year history of Iranâs Islamic Republic have its officials sent more signals in less time about a desire to reengage with the US and the outside world.
President Hasan Rouhani defined a policy of âconstructive engagementâ in a âchangedâ world, and urged fellow leaders to âseize the opportunity presented by Iranâs recent electionâ in today's Washington Post. Days earlier, he vowed that Iran would âneverâ pursue nuclear weapons and called war âweaknessâ in an interview with NBC News.
Even Iranâs Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week said Iran would show âheroic flexibility,â though it would take care not forget the âopponent âŚ and what his real goal is.â
But can the promise of those words be realized, even in part? As Iran pushes its charm offensive in a bid to ease crippling US-led sanctions and end the stalemate over its controversial nuclear program, analysts note several points that may shape future diplomatic efforts:
1. âBig for bigâ
âAfter 10 years of back-and-forth, what all sides donât want in relation to our nuclear file is clear,â Mr. Rouhani writes in the Post.
âBut to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my countryâs nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,â writes Rouhani. âWe all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want â clearly, concisely and sincerely âÂ and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action.â
To do that means transforming the cumbersome and stalled negotiating process between Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) from its current focus on incremental steps aimed at building confidence, but with no defined end state.
âWe have got to be a lot more creative than we have been prepared to beâŚ. We have to go âbig for big,ââ says George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The baby-step model âis totally self-defeating at this point [because] the Iranians want to know where the road ends, not where it starts. Because, is it a dark alley where they are going to get mugged halfway in it? Or does it actually lead to a place that is valued by them?â asks Mr. Perkovich, speaking Thursday in New York on a panel organized by The Iran Project, a group of former officials and experts who have pushed for US-Iran dialogue for more than a decade.
Â 2. Mutual acceptance
Â High on the list of grievances between the US and Iran is an unwillingness to accept the otherâs presence or influence in the Middle East. Iran has for decades led an âaxis of resistanceâ against US and Israeli interests; American officials until recent years went out of their way to avoid referring by name to Iranâs post-1979 revolutionary government.
âWhat is the deal that permits Iran to accept the United Statesâ position in the region, the legitimacy of our position in the region, and we accept the legitimacy of Iranâs position in the region?â asks former US Amb. Frank Wisner, also speaking on The Iran Project panel.
The solution would require the US to âbalance our way forward into the future,â says Ambassador Wisner, adding that at the meetings at the UN next week, Â âweâre going to see a lot clearer the parameters of what might be possible.âÂ Rouhani addresses the General Assembly Tuesday, the same day as President Obama.
Says Wisner: âWe wonât get to [Syria talks in] Geneva without Iran, we wonât get surety for our ships and sailors in the [Persian] Gulf, we wonât get a framework for managing Afghanistan, we wonât get a package of understandings that can deal with Israeli sensitivities â we wonât get any of these if we donât have a core set of understandings with Iran.â
3.Â The challenge in the US
But getting there will be far from easy. The US Congress has imposed increasingly harsh sanctions, which today target the spectrum of Iranâs economy, from limiting oil exports âÂ which have dropped in two years from 2.4 million barrels per day to below 1 million â to blocking central bank and financial transactions.
Analysts often say Congress is âin loveâ with sanctions, a default policy that lawmakers may believe will force Iran to capitulate. Iran has grated beneath this US carrot-and-stick approach, saying there are too many sticks, and carrots anyway are fit only for âdonkeys.â
Nasser Hadian-Jazy, who teaches international relations at Tehran University, expects relatively quick progress on a nuclear deal, but is less optimistic about any immediate US-Iran breakthrough.
The reason? âA political structure exists in both countries which involves the hostile relationship,â and many of those who benefit are in positions of power and will âcreate all sorts of impediments,â says Mr. Hadian-Jazy in an interview.Â
âJust to see a US senator or congressman say something positive about Iran, he or she is going to pay a cost; but if they say negative things, they arenât going to pay a cost for it,â he says. âIt is exactly the same in Iran: If any member of the Iranian parliament says anything positive about the US or negotiation or improving the relationship, he or she is going to pay a cost. But [not] if they say a negative thing.âÂ
Indeed, the idea of regime change in Iran still motivates some US lawmakers.Â
âThe habit in Washington of seeing an enemy and committing all resources and attitudes toward it is going to be difficult to overcome,â says William Luers, a former senior US official and ambassador who directs The Iran Project.
âIf the United States is capable of changing attitudes â and itâs not clear, given the congressional attitudes that have developed over the sanctions issue, that the president will be able to do what he probably has to do âÂ [then] weâre at the edge of something that could be very important,â says Ambassador Luers, also speaking in New York.
4.Â The nuclear conundrum
Iranian officials have stated repeatedly that they do not want nuclear weapons, and even that they adhere to a past religious ruling by Ayatollah Khamenei rejecting such arms.
âThatâs the key to the solution,â says Perkovich from Carnegie.
The watchwords should be âdistrust and verify,â he says. âWe know that the United States does not trust the Iranians, but what we donât generally perceive is that the Iranians distrust us about a thousand times more, and that the leader has reasons for it.â
In his Washington Post piece, Rouhani writes that, âA constructive approach to diplomacy doesnât mean relinquishing oneâs rights.â For Iran, he writes, mastering the atomic fuel cycle âis as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.âÂ
Still the US doesnât trust Iranâs rejection of nuclear weapons, says Perkovich, âso the solution is going to be for them to provide enough transparency that verifies in fact that they donât want nuclear weapons âŚ that goes way beyond [uranium] enrichment and fuel cycles.â
Likewise, adds Perkovich, there is a burden of proof on the US side: âWe say we donât seek regime change but rather behavior change, and that they can have a peaceful nuclear program. They donât believe thatâŚ. So weâre going to have to verify to them that we donât seek regime change, [and] the obvious way to do that is pulling off the sanctions that have put the most pressure on the regime.â
5.Â Building on mutual interests
Iranâs new president notes shared strategic interests with the US, and that âthe world has changed,â such that it is âno longer a zero-sum game,â but one in which âcooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities,â writes Rouhani in the Post.
He also states that there are limits to using kinetic force. A decade and two wars after 9/11, âAl Qaeda and other militant extremists continue to wreak havoc,â while daily bloodshed continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, writes Rouhani. âThe unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breeds violence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, such as terrorism and extremism.â
The first example could be Syria, where Rouhani pledged his governmentâs âreadinessâ support dialogue for a solution. Both sides fear the rise of jihadi Islamist fighters among rebel ranks, even though Iran and the US back opposing sides on the battlefield.
Â âIranâs in Syria. It is foolish of us to imagine that you are going to see a way through the Syrian crisis today without the involvement of the Iranians,â says Wisner. âItâs an accommodation that behooves us as Americans to take on and be aware of and be ready to undertake.â
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