Nuclear talks resume tomorrow [April] 5 among Iran, the United States and five other powers in an atmosphere of decidedly restrained optimism.
It would be wonderful if these on-again, off-again negotiations led to a verifiable cap on Iran’s nuclear program in return for relief of sanctions that are impoverishing and embittering the Iranian people. But given the difficult history between Iran and the international community, it is entirely possible that no agreement will be reached. That does not mean, however, that US policy should remain unchanged.
Current US actions risk alienating Iranians, who, according to former CIA director Mike Hayden, are the most pro-American Muslim population “between Marrakesh and Bangladesh.”
Hayden is a member of the Iran Task Force of the Atlantic Council, which today is issuing a new report that urges the Barack Obama administration to alleviate the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iranians and to shore up people-to-people ties. It recommends that the US Treasury Department “designate a small number of US and private Iranian financial institutions as channels for payment for humanitarian, educational and public diplomacy-related transactions carefully licensed by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.”
If implemented, this recommendation could spur US companies that have stopped selling Iran medicine — for fear of finding no legal way to be paid — to resume life-saving shipments. Iranian students in the US would be able to receive money from their parents more easily; Iranian-Americans who want to help relatives back home would no longer have to resort to expensive, quasi-legal methods that are difficult to track and lend themselves to abuse by unsavory actors. Rather than “appeasing Iran,” such a shift would make it harder for the Iranian government to blame the United States for the pain sanctions are causing — pain that could be alleviated even more if Iran moves to compromise on its nuclear program.
The Obama administration should also promote more academic and cultural exchanges with Iran, such as a recent visit by a half-dozen Iranian museum directors and programs that have brought together US and Iranian scientists to discuss issues including water quality, earthquake prediction and AIDS research. Exchanges dropped off after the disputed Iranian elections of 2009, but are now on the rise. Twinning selected US and Iranian universities and developing a modified Fulbright program for Iran could boost these important ties.
To facilitate such contacts, the report recommends that the Obama administration ask Iran to allow American diplomats to staff a US Interests Section in Tehran similar to the one Iran maintains in Washington. This is an idea that has been bandied about in Washington for years, but dropped for fear of “looking soft” on Iran. In reality, it would benefit the US enormously, giving American diplomats their first direct access to Iran in more than 30 years. At the same time, Iranians would no longer have to travel to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey or Armenia to get visas to come to the United States. An Interests Section would also lay the groundwork for a formal restoration of diplomatic relations if some accommodation on the nuclear issue can be achieved.
While hostility toward the United States has been a basic tenet of the Islamic Republic since its inception, there was an interval of warming under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Direct talks took place after Sept. 11, 2001, and also under the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when the US and Iranian ambassadors in Iraq met in 2007, albeit with Iraqi chaperones. Under the Obama administration, then-undersecretary of state Bill Burns sat solo with Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in 2009. In a recent Iranian New Year’s message, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he was not opposed in principle to more bilateral talks with the United States, even if he doubted their efficacy.
To increase the chances for success in the nuclear talks, the Atlantic Council Task Force — led by former deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eizenstat — is urging the Obama administration to put forward a face-saving offer to the Iranians trading a verifiable cap on uranium enrichment for sanctions relief. The report calls for an “end-game” that Iran can see before it embarks down the road of major concessions. It also says that the US must maintain a credible military option against Iran as a last resort, while listing the negative consequences that could flow from attacking Iran.
Informed opinion in Washington is shifting toward a long-term strategy on Iran that seeks to resolve the nuclear issue without sacrificing the goodwill of the Iranian people and replicating the awful experience of Iraq, when draconian sanctions turned out to be a prelude to war. John Kerry appeared in tune with this evolving view in his first New Year’s message to Iranians as secretary of state.
“On this Nowruz, we would like to reaffirm our desire to continue building strong people-to-people ties to promote greater understanding, peace and progress,” Kerry said.