A Moment of Opportunity For Engaging Iran?

Article Summary
The drumbeat for war over Iran's nuclear activities has grown fainter in recent weeks. This easing of tensions, while perhaps temporary, could provide a rare opportunity to imagine a change in the US-Iran relationship, write Barry Blechman and Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center.

The drumbeat of war over Iran's nuclear activities has grown fainter in recent weeks.

President Obama maneuvered skillfully during the US visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While reconfirming the "all options" position, he also made clear that current circumstances do not warrant a rush to military action.

The American red line is an Iranian nuclear weapon, not a nuclear capability, as desired by the Israelis and, as yet, there is no conclusive evidence that Iran has decided to build a weapon. Even before the president's remarks, Iran had let the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, know that it was ready to resume nuclear talks for the first time in more than a year, apparently without preconditions. To underscore Iran's stance, the Supreme Leader reiterated his anti-nuclear weapons position in a new fatwa (Islamic legal opinion).

This lessening of tensions, while perhaps temporary, may provide a rare opportunity to imagine a change in the US-Iran relationship. After thirty years of estrangement, neither party has good insights into the intentions of the other, or dares to take big risks after so many disappointments. A new round of missed cues is certainly possible, even likely. But the leaders in Tehran and Washington are tentatively signaling readiness to move in a more positive direction.

The nuclear file has trumped all other issues in US-Iran relations. For US policy makers, it drives the internal debate due to its consequences for US national security and for the security interests of key US partners in the Middle East. Other American interests, from human rights to regional concerns, have remained on the agenda, but do not command the attention of the nuclear issue. While such logic is understandable, the larger strategic objective of finding a durable modus vivendi with Iran has been lost. Iran is an intrinsically important country in the region, and resolving the nuclear issue requires a broader conceptual framework about Iran's role and US interests in the region.

A more comprehensive agenda would permit the two parties to see issues in dispute in context. There is no magic formula that would guarantee any spillover benefit from one issue to another, but treating each issue in US-Iran relations in isolation has so far not proved to be productive. More fundamentally, Iran, as the weaker party with deep mistrust of international institutions and processes (which it fears are designed to favor the US), needs to see that the US and the West can understand and even respect its fundamental interests.

Assuming talks resume in the coming weeks, the US and its partners--other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany--could create real momentum by accepting Iran's right to enrich uranium, provided it permits the IAEA to clarify past questions about weapons research and monitor its current activities without interference, and that the levels and quantities of enriched uranium would be commensurate with Iran's legitimate peaceful needs. The US, eventually through bilateral talks, should also underscore the economic benefits to Iran, even beyond the lifting of sanctions, that would result from a successful negotiation.

The US also has a stake in Iran's role in the future of Afghanistan. Iran's long-term interests in a stable Afghanistan not under Taliban or Pakistani control largely converge with American interests. But so far, Iran has placed its goal of preventing a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan above more practical areas for cooperation such as border security and economic reconstruction.

Iran also believes that the neighbors of Afghanistan should lead a regional strategy to stabilize the country, in lieu of a Western-led international strategy. For the US, the regional players are a component of a larger international strategy, and Afghanistan's ability to remain a unified and independent country will require support from countries other than its immediate neighbors. As the withdrawal of foreign forces approaches, Iran may be ready to focus on more pragmatic issues, and the US should reconfirm its interest in such a dialogue.

The situation in Syria and more broadly in the Middle East does not lend itself easily to US-Iran dialogue, since the two countries' interests diverge significantly, but in the context of an engagement strategy, sharing assessments of the region should not be excluded from the agenda. The US and Iran will continue to compete to influence political change in the region, but the US has wider interests in regional stability beyond the sectarian contests and regional power shifts under way.

As Nowruz [Iranian New Year] messages are exchanged and a slight thaw in the atmosphere is detectable, a sense of sober realism must prevail. After decades of mutual recriminations and mistrust, influential parties in both countries expect the worst of each other, and are sometimes validated in their beliefs. Nonetheless, both regional and global imperatives are providing policy makers and their diplomats with a rare and welcome opportunity to imagine a better future in US-Iran relations.

Barry Blechman, distinguished fellow and co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that seeks innovative solutions to national security problems, is the co-author of Iran in Perspective: Holding Iran to Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology. Ellen Laipson, president and chief executive of the Stimson Center, is the author of Engaging Iran on Afghanistan. Both reports were released this month.

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