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What to remember before talking to Iran

What to remember before talking to Iran

By Michael Singh

When it comes to Middle East policy, the unspoken theme of Secretary-designate Clinton’s confirmation testimony -– as well as recent interviews given by President-elect Obama -– is continuity. The clearest substantive break with the Bush administration that both Obama and Clinton have sought to emphasize, however, is on engagement with Iran, as Chris discusses here.  The merits of engaging with Iran will, I’m sure, be much-discussed in the coming months, on this blog and elsewhere.  It is worth, as a prelude, framing the issue a bit.

It’s worth noting that the general diplomatic approach advocated by the President-elect and Secretary-designate –- mixing incentives and sanctions while offering dialogue –- is precisely the approach that the United States and its allies have taken for the past several years. (The details of the so-called “incentives package” are available in Annex II to UN Security Council Resolution 1747, and Bill Burns’ recent description of U.S. policy on Iran is available here.) The new administration will need to decide what new sanctions and what new incentives it wishes to enact and can convince allies to support.

This leads back to the question of engagement. It is vital to keep in mind that engagement is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Its utility as a diplomatic tool is a function primarily of two things:

1. The expected benefit: This in turn depends largely on both parties’ objectives, the rationality with which they negotiate, and most importantly, leverage –- who has it, and how much. You get leverage through sanctions, incentives, and other means; you use leverage through diplomacy, one manifestation of which is engagement.

2. Potential downsides: The benefits of engagement must be weighed against its costs. In most circumstances the cost of talking is negligible; however, when the other party is a regime like Iran’s or Zimbabwe’s, the cost is undeniably higher.

One detail lost in the public debate on engagement with Iran is the fact that every U.S. administration since 1979 has reached out to Iran in one way or another, as Secretary Gates pointed out in the Q and A after a recent speech at the National Defense University. This includes the Bush administration –- the United States and Iran engaged in trilateral talks (with Iraq) at the ambassadorial level regarding security in Iraq, and the United States (as a member of the “P5+1”) offered to talk to Iran about its nuclear program in a multilateral setting after Iran suspended its enrichment of uranium. 

There has been little explanation offered by the new team of how the innovations they have suggested -– offering the Iranian regime bilateral negotiations and dropping preconditions –- will either increase the likelihood of success of talks on Iran’s nuclear program or mitigate their downsides. This is the question that the Obama administration will need to answer: whether and how their particular approach to engagement fits into an overall strategy to build and employ leverage to accomplish U.S. objectives in the short time available.