Think Again: Talking with Iran

With a new president in the White House and a celebrated reformist shaking up Tehran, the time seems ripe for a diplomatic breakthrough 30 years in the waiting. But when it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic, be forewarned: Washington's usual go-slow approach is doomed to fail.


The United States Should Wait to Engage Iran Until Ahmadinejad Is Gone

The United States Should Wait to Engage Iran Until Ahmadinejad Is Gone

Wrong. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the problem, and hi rival Mohammad Khatami is not (necessarily) the solution. For many years, U.S. administrations have thought that, if they just waited long enough, Iranian politics would produce a leader that Washington would like dealing with. When I served as director for Iran and Afghanistan affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice dismissed then President Khatami as a potential diplomatic partner for the United States. Indeed, the erstwhile Sovietologist compared Khatami to Mikhail Gorbachev, arguing that by engaging Khatami, the United States would risk missing the opportunity to find the Islamic Republic’s Boris Yeltsin.

Now, of course, after nearly four years of Ahmadinejad, the United States can hardly wait for Khatami to come back. Moreover, during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, many in Washington have come to view Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a moderating influence — this, of course, being the same ayatollah who, during Khatami’s presidency, was widely criticized in the West as an authoritarian cleric thwarting the clear preference of the Iranian public for liberal reform.

Focusing on individual Iranian politicians misses an important reality: The Islamic Republic of Iran actually has a system of government, with multiple and competing power centers.

On foreign policy in particular, the system makes decisions by consensus. No president — no matter how reformist or conservative in orientation — will be able to force through significant changes in Iranian foreign policy without the acquiescence of other power centers, most notably the supreme leader.

This is why the breathless discussion of whether Washington should reach out to Tehran, be it with a letter from President Barack Obama or some sort of formal diplomatic proposal in advance of Iran’s presidential election in June, is so misguided. The United States should make diplomatic proposals to Iran on their merits, recognizing that the Iranian power structure as a whole will be processing and responding to those proposals. Trying to game the Iranian political system in the hopes of ultimately finding a pliable Iranian interlocutor not only won’t work; it will only confirm the worst suspicions in Tehran that the United States will never be willing to accept the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate political order.

The Iranian Government Is Too Divided to ‘Deliver’ in Any Serious Negotiation

Wrong again. This is a pearl of conventional wisdom dispensed by so-called American experts on Iran — but only by those who have never negotiated with, nor perhaps even talked with, actual Iranian officials. The assertion is completely contradicted by several episodes of U.S. engagement with the Islamic Republic, going back more than 20 years. I myself participated in one of these episodes, negotiating with Iran over Afghanistan and al Qaeda for almost two years from 2001 to 2003 on behalf of the U.S. government.

During these talks, I saw firsthand how Iranian diplomats can negotiate productively, deliver on specific commitments they have made, and make concessions and calculate trade-offs across a range of issues to enhance their country’s overall strategic position. My Iranian interlocutors were the three most senior officials responsible for the Islamic Republic’s policy toward Afghanistan. They were knowledgeable, serious, and credible in their representations. If the United States is now sincere about diplomatic engagement with Tehran, there is no reason to expect that the Iranians tapped to meet with Obama’s representatives — regardless of who occupies the president’s office in Tehran — would be any less knowledgeable, serious, and credible.

Iran Is an Immature, Ideological State That Cannot Think About Its National Interest

No. It is commonly asserted in Washington that, if Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, it would use them to carry out alleged threats by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders to wipe Israel off the map. These threats would be carried out without any regard to the consequences that would befall Iran; according to this perspective, the Islamic Republic aspires to become history’s first suicide nation.

The reality of Iran’s national security strategy is far different. Candid conversations with Iranian officials confirm what long observation of Iranian policies strongly suggests: Iran pursues an asymmetric national security strategy, aimed at generating for the Islamic Republic the same security that conventional military capabilities, allies, and strategic depth — all things that Iran does not have — provide for other countries. This strategy includes developing unconventional military capabilities, including at least a nuclear weapons option as a last-ditch deterrent.

This strategy is not going to change as a result of Iran’s upcoming presidential election. The Islamic Republic established its asymmetric national security strategy before Khatami was first elected in 1997. It was Iran’s national security strategy during both terms of Khatami’s presidency. It has remained Iran’s national security strategy under Ahmadinejad. Perhaps something beyond individual personalities is at work here. If the United States and its allies want to stop Iran from going all the way to overt nuclear weaponization, they need to be prepared to address the Islamic Republic’s most fundamental security concerns — not to demonize individual Iranian politicians as latter-day Hitlers bent on a second Holocaust.

Iran’s Support for Terrorism Confirms Its Irredeemably Aggressive and Malign Ambitions

Hardly. Here, too, Iranian policy needs to be understood in the context of the Islamic Republic’s asymmetric national security strategy. Proxy actors — political, paramilitary, and terrorist — in neighboring states and elsewhere give Tehran tools to ensure that those states will not be used as anti-Iranian platforms, providing the Islamic Republic a measure of strategic depth it otherwise lacks. This element of Iran’s national security strategy encompasses not only groups identified by Washington as terrorist organizations but also Iraqi and Afghan political parties and their associated militias.

Most problematic, the (willful?) failure of U.S. foreign-policy elites to understand the calculations motivating Iran’s actions toward its proxy allies has profoundly distorted discussion in the United States and elsewhere of alleged Iranian ties to al Qaeda. Indeed, this failure has cost the United States opportunities to enlist the Islamic Republic as a potentially formidable partner in the fight against terrorism.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran detained literally hundreds of suspected al Qaeda operatives seeking to flee Afghanistan into Iran. Iran repatriated at least 200 of these individuals to the then new government of Hamid Karzai, to Saudi Arabia, and to other countries. The Iranian government documented these actions to the United Nations and the United States in February 2002, including providing copies of each repatriated individual’s passport.

But Iran could not repatriate all of the individuals it detained. For example, the Islamic Republic has no diplomatic relations with Egypt, and Iranian diplomats told my colleagues and me that Tehran was not able to send al Qaeda operatives of Egyptian origin back to Egypt. Regrettably, instead of working to establish a framework within which Tehran could have made al Qaeda operatives detained in Iran available to the United States or some international body — as our Iranian interlocutors requested — the Bush administration insisted that Iran detain and deport all al Qaeda figures the United States believed might be in Iran, without any assistance from or reciprocal understandings with the United States. (This was meant to be a test of Iranian intentions.)

Later, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration told the Iranians that the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) — an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group that the United States had for years identified as a terrorist organization — would be targeted as an extension of Saddam Hussein’s military apparatus. However, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the Pentagon granted the MEK special protected status, raising concerns in Tehran that Washington wanted to use the MEK as part of a campaign to bring down the Islamic Republic. Only at that point did the Iranians begin to view the al Qaeda operatives in its custody as a potential bargaining chip to use with Washington regarding the MEK.

Then, in response to the Bush administration’s unconditional demands that Tehran turn over al Qaeda operatives the United States believed to be on Iranian soil, the Iranians offered a deal — to exchange al Qaeda figures they had detained for MEK cadres in Iraq. To facilitate such an exchange, the Iranians offered to release all low- and mid-level MEK figures; to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor the treatment of any high-level MEK figures detained in Iran; and to forego application of the death penalty to any high-level MEK figures found guilty of crimes by Iranian courts. In the end, it was the Bush administration, not Iran, that rebuffed a deal that would have given the United States access to important al Qaeda operatives — including, possibly, Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son.

Diplomacy Should Focus on One or a Few Issues Where the Two Countries’ Interests Overlap

No. This bit of conventional wisdom — reminiscent of comedian Dana Carvey’s imitation of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush (not too much, not too fast, wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture) — is also wrong. From my own experience, it is clear that trying to proceed incrementally with Tehran is doomed to fail. Our talks over Afghanistan were productive but structurally flawed: Because there was no comprehensive, strategic framework for dealing with the Iranians, unrelated issues could and did undermine otherwise productive negotiations.

If Obama is serious about diplomatic engagement with Iran, he needs to establish a comprehensive strategic framework for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy at the outset, rather than waiting in vain for some measure of trust to be established. Moreover, that framework needs to explicitly posit strategic realignment between Washington and Tehran as the talks’ end goal. Without this, the Iranians will never believe that the United States is truly prepared to live with the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate government. They will continue to act in ways that they think are critical to defending their vital interests, but that Washington sees as unacceptably provocative. Unless the Unites States breaks this vicious cycle, already bad U.S.-Iranian relations will continue to deteriorate, and the United States and the Islamic Republic will be drawn ever closer to the point of conflict, even with the Obama administration’s professed interest in diplomatic engagement.

U.S. President George W. Bush explicitly rejected repeated Iranian overtures to discuss the two countries’ differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Although Obama has improved U.S. rhetoric with his repeated use of the phrase, mutual respect, he has yet to tackle the real challenge of changing the mind-set (his words from the campaign) of U.S. policymakers with regard to Iran and other daunting challenges in the Middle East. As the diplomatic dance between Washington and Iran quickens, we’ll soon know if he is willing and able to pull off this far more difficult feat.

Hillary Mann Leverett, who served as director for Afghanistan, Iran, and Persian Gulf affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, is the chief executive officer of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy.

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