The Middle East Channel

Strategic engagement with Iran

Strategic engagement with Iran

Frustrated by the absence of substantive progress during the latest round of P5+1 talks in Geneva, some Iran analysts would have U.S. policy plunge once again into the murky territory of regime change. Some hope that a military attack might bring about this goal. Others, taking what seems to be the high road, argue that the U.S. should back a people’s democratic revolution. This second idea is deeply alluring. After all, it accords with our most cherished ideas while also offering a solution that serves U.S. national interests. What advocate of democracy would not want Iran’s Green Movement to prevail? In one fell swoop, its victory would bring to the table legitimate Iranian leaders who keenly defend Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power, but who would also provide a far more constructive negotiating partner for the U.S. and its allies. 

The problem, however, is that democratic reform in Iran is a long-term proposition. As a result, it cannot serve as the basis for an effective U.S.-Iran policy. If the Obama White House were to rest its efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons on regime change, it would end up with an Iran policy as incoherent as those of the administrations that preceded it.

That incoherence is rooted in the reluctance of both Republican and Democratic administrations to make a decisive choice between making war or talking peace. Given the costs of both it is hardly surprising that our leaders have been unwilling or unable to mobilize political and bureaucratic support for either option. Instead, they have split the difference by using a mix of punitive measures and tepid incentives to in one way or another "contain" Iran — thus avoiding the domestic discomfort that would inevitably accompany a more strategically cogent policy. 

To his credit, President Obama tried to overcome this legacy of policy confusion. He did so by reinvigorating a "two track" approach that imposed increasing costs while holding out the prospect of benefits that Tehran might gain in the event that it came clean on its nuclear program. But this policy has been long on the tactics of sanctions and other punitive measures, and short on a cogent strategic vision on the ultimate relationship with Iran that U.S. leaders — and the public — would endorse.

If, as administration officials insist, sanctions are a "means rather than an end," we need to define that end far more clearly. If it is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, then let’s be clear: sanctions may be slowing that program down, but by themselves they will not compel Iran’s leaders to comply with the International Atomic Energy Commission or the UN Security Council. To get the attention of Iran’s current leaders, we must decide whether the goal of sanctions (or for that matter, engagement) is to set the stage for war or for sustained peace negotiations.

On this elemental question, the White House’s Iran policy is not all together clear. Hesitant to prematurely reveal its negotiating hand, and determined to show at home and abroad that it is tough, the Obama administration has hesitated to spell out a detailed package of economic, geo-strategic or diplomatic benefits that Iran might attain by seriously addressing the amply documented concerns of the International Atomic Energy Commission the UN Security Council.

Tehran’s actions and words have not helped matters. Its dismissal of Obama’s two "Nowruz" messages, President Ahmadinejad’s verbal attacks on the legitimacy of the "Zionist enemy," Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas — not to mention the regime’s repression of the Green Movement — have all undercut support within and outside the administration for engagement.

As support for engagement wanes in Washington, calls for regime change are reverberating in the U.S. Congress and out national media. The idea that we can slay the Iranian nuclear dragon by destroying its autocratic heart will probably become a leitmotif of the House and quite possibly the Senate in 2011. 

How to accomplish this is the question. Secretary of Defense Gates has publicly asserted that a military attack on Iran would "bring together a divided nation" and make Iran’s weapons program "deeper and more covert." This sober observation echoes conclusions set out in a joint report of the Unites States Institute of Peace and the Stimson Center, namely that a U.S. attack on Iran would "destabilize the entire Middle East in ways that could do grave damage to U.S. strategic, economic and political interests." Drawing on the insights of a diverse group including James Dobbins, Dov Zakheim and Admiral William Fallon, this report argues that an attack would not only cement Iran’s determination to get the bomb, it would also accelerate the effort of ultra-hardliners to impose total control, thus shutting the door to any hopes of even modest political reform.

Political reform will eventually come to Iran, but in manner far more prolonged and partial than that imagined by advocates of a full-scale democratic revolution. This kind of dramatic scenario may pluck a tour heart strings, but it has not been the animating vision of Iran’s reformists. The latter speak for a 25-million urban middle class of Iranians, many whom share one goal: to compel the state to stop forcing religious dogma on the population.

In the wake of the controversy over the June 2009 presidential election and the mass protests that followed, this drive for reform within the system gave way to a more radical vision of the system within some circles of the Green Movement. But battered by a repressive regime and deeply divided, the movement’s leaders have yet to define a common strategic vision of what they want to achieve. Moreover, they must still or forge durable alliances with key elite groups such as the urban commercial bazaar and the official clergy, or with popular sectors among the urban and rural lower classes. This is not an impossible project, but it will require a grass roots process of networking, communication and alliance building that will take years to unfold.

There is very little the U.S. can or should do to affect this prolonged dynamic. The more we embrace Iran’s democratic activists, the more we suffocate them. Iran’s reformists want the international community to stand up for their human rights; they do not want to be pawns of a U.S.-Iranian conflict. In a land where concerns about national sovereignty and religious identity cut across the regime-opposition divide, the quest for democracy will be discredited if it is seen as anything but homegrown.

There is one thing, however, that the U.S. can do promote political decompression in Iran, and that is to make détente with the Islamic Republic a top priority. Sustained U.S.-Iranian engagement would undercut the "threat" that ultra hardliners regularly invoke to legitimate their efforts to pummel or isolate their critics. The latter include prominent conservatives, many of whom are eager to deflect the efforts of Revolutionary Guard to undermine the autonomy of clerical institutions, private sector businesses, and the parliament. Fighting for their very political and economic survival, these conservative leaders are likely to push for a process of internal political accommodation that could open up some doors for reformists. While they face many hurdles, one thing is sure: an escalation of U.S.-Iranian tensions (much less a war!) will only harm the efforts of those Iranian leaders who favor internal dialogue to make their voices heard.

In the coming decade, Iran’s politics will be defined by a slow, agonizing struggle waged through rather than against the institutions of the Islamic Republic. If we indulge in the seductive dream of a sudden democratic revolution — whether delivered by bombs from above or by popular resistance from below — we will destroy the seeds of a political change in Iran. But we if we push for a process of engagement that moves Iran and the U.S. from conflict to diplomatic coexistence, we can help nurture Iran’s own capacity to change and transform from within.

Let us hope that 2011 will be the year, not for war, but for a revitalized diplomatic initiative to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. If we do not pursue a bolder engagement strategy, the U.S. and its allies will ultimately have no choice but to contain a nuclear Iran. Secretary of State Clinton’s recent BBC interview, in which she stated U.S. conditional acceptance of Iran’s enrichment rights, provides one step in the right direction. The Obama administration must move forward, despite the obstacles at home and abroad.

Daniel Brumberg is a special advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace. Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center. They are the co-authors of "Engagement, Coercion, and Iran’s Nuclear Challenge," a collaborate report published by the Stimson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace. This report is the product of a year-long examination by more than 50 experts of the Iranian nuclear problem.