Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

Now is the time for the Obama administration to renew its efforts to engage with Iran.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

When I heard that my brother Josh and his friends Shane and Sarah had been captured by the Iranian government on July 31, 2009, I was in Sweden, conducting field research for a Ph.D. in social anthropology at Harvard University. I immediately put my graduate studies on hold and began what has felt like a parallel Ph.D., one that has been more torturous -- and as of three weeks ago, following my brother's release in Muscat, Oman, more rewarding.

My views on U.S. policy toward Iran have evolved over the 781 days Josh and Shane were detained. During that time, I read widely about Iran and the U.S. relationship with the country, and visited Washington more than three dozen times to meet with U.S. policymakers. This week, I made one more round in the nation's capital with other family members to say thank you to folks at the State Department, at White House, on Capitol Hill, in key embassies, and within the interfaith community who have worked to reunite my family, as well as the Bauer and Shourd families.

In addition to my deep appreciation, I would also like to offer a policy recommendation based on these years I've spent immersed in the world of Iranian-American non-relations: Barack Obama's administration should double down on diplomacy and reach out to the Iranian regime. This effort has only become more urgent following the U.S. government's announcement that it thwarted an Iran-sponsored assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to Washington -- allegations that could easily provoke an escalation in regional rivalries.

When I heard that my brother Josh and his friends Shane and Sarah had been captured by the Iranian government on July 31, 2009, I was in Sweden, conducting field research for a Ph.D. in social anthropology at Harvard University. I immediately put my graduate studies on hold and began what has felt like a parallel Ph.D., one that has been more torturous — and as of three weeks ago, following my brother’s release in Muscat, Oman, more rewarding.

My views on U.S. policy toward Iran have evolved over the 781 days Josh and Shane were detained. During that time, I read widely about Iran and the U.S. relationship with the country, and visited Washington more than three dozen times to meet with U.S. policymakers. This week, I made one more round in the nation’s capital with other family members to say thank you to folks at the State Department, at White House, on Capitol Hill, in key embassies, and within the interfaith community who have worked to reunite my family, as well as the Bauer and Shourd families.

In addition to my deep appreciation, I would also like to offer a policy recommendation based on these years I’ve spent immersed in the world of Iranian-American non-relations: Barack Obama’s administration should double down on diplomacy and reach out to the Iranian regime. This effort has only become more urgent following the U.S. government’s announcement that it thwarted an Iran-sponsored assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to Washington — allegations that could easily provoke an escalation in regional rivalries.

The Obama administration’s policy toward Iran has long coupled economic pressure with political isolation. Recently, any efforts at outreach have been followed by sanctions when the outreach is spurned. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dismissed Obama’s Nowruz message on March 19, 2009, and his call to transcend the mutual antagonisms of the last 30 years in his Cairo speech 11 weeks later. Tehran was flummoxed and nonresponsive. This enabled the White House to make the case to skeptical countries that Iran was the obstacle to rapprochement. After rounds of some of the most robust multilateral and bilateral sanctions Iran has ever faced, it’s time for the Obama administration to reach out to Iran again.

Why? Even if it doesn’t precipitate a breakthrough (which it almost certainly will not) and Iran continues to lean on the rhetorical crutch of anti-Americanism (which it almost certainly will), the redoubled outreach will entrench the political fissures in the Iranian establishment. Those on the neoconservative end of the spectrum in the Beltway would do well to consider this simple truth: Engagement is more controversial in Tehran than in Washington.

Any gesture that could conceivably be construed as an overture to the West, such as the release of my brother and his friends or contact with high-level Western officials, makes the conservatives in the religious city of Qom, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Khamenei’s office bristle with worry and ultimately deepens the divisions between Iran’s political elites. The limited poll data available indicates that over 70 percent of Iranians favor better relations with the United States. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent political neutering was precipitated by conservative paranoia that the president is seeking to capitalize on this sentiment and is jockeying to position himself as an interlocutor with the West.

The conservative opposition, including Khamenei himself, has publicly jerked the president’s leash in fights over ministerial posts and in assigning credit for the release of Josh and Shane last month and Sarah over a year ago. The underlings of judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani went on to insist that the release would only happen on their watch. In practice, this meant one judge would sign a paper authorizing the release while a second judge leisurely returned from a vacation — as if Kafka were writing the script. While Khamenei has publicly called for unity, he hasn’t had the gumption to personally mediate.

Renewed outreach to Iran at once kicks the crutch of rhetorical posturing out from beneath the Islamic Republic and strengthens America’s diplomatic hand. My brother was ultimately released after a concerted diplomatic outreach that involved many of Iran’s neighbors, nonaligned nations, and allies. While it’s easier to get three obviously innocent hikers out of Iran than stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, a diplomatic full-court press is necessary for both. Despite the pressures that will undoubtedly come from a Republican House in an election year, the strategic thing to do is double down on diplomacy.

I have firsthand experience with how frustrating diplomacy with Iran can be. But it is the most assertive move that the United States can make and the surest way to speed the collapse of the Iranian system under the weight of its own contradictions. Over the last 26 months, I have heard reports of quiet meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials. Afterward, however, both sides get nervous and run away in fear of the political liabilities back home.

There is also a structural problem in engaging the Iranian regime. Iran’s most accessible channels, the Foreign Ministry and presidency, are not key decision-makers; the true power centers, such as senior IRGC leaders, are the targets of punitive sanctions. But that shouldn’t stop the diplomatic efforts, private and public. As Iran — stuck in a "defensive crouch," as one U.S. administration official put it to me after one of our many meetings — continues to prove its incapability to reciprocate to further outreach, it will become even clearer to the international community that Iran’s increasing isolation is a problem "of its own making," as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said to our families in June.

My family is finally united, but many Iranian families continue to be divided by the brutal policies of their own regime. The best thing the Obama administration can do for these families is stick to its guns — and insist we’re ready to talk. Consummating Iran’s political isolation can only be achieved by Iran’s own bumbling, but that bumbling can be spurred along. Barack Hussein (yes, use the Hussein here) Obama should go on BBC Persian before Ashura this December to send another positive message to the Iranian people and reiterate the promise of better relations — if only the Iranian government will respond in kind.

John Limbert, a former hostage of Iran who was the Obama administration’s point person on Iran at the State Department before resigning after 10 months on the job, wrote in his book Negotiating with Iran, "Iran does not respond to pressure. Iran only responds to a lot of pressure." That pressure is being applied economically through tighter sanctions, geopolitically through the staggering of the Syrian regime, militarily through Turkey’s agreement to host a missile defense shield, and morally through the symbolic actions of the human rights community — such as the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran by the United Nations and a virtual protest in Azadi Square organized by Amnesty International.

What is needed now is more diplomatic pressure. In an age where emerging powers have greater diplomatic say and Russia and China need extra cajoling, the way to ratchet up the diplomatic pressure on Iran is through renewed outreach.

However, with news of foiled Iranian terror plots rippling across the headlines, however, it seems unlikely that the non-relationship is moving in the direction of renewed outreach. Extending a hand now is just the way to keep Iran guessing. As Jon Stewart so aptly put it, "Iran has militarized irony." While it may seem ironic for the United States to extend its hand while applying punitive sanctions and trying to "put Iran in a vise," it is a logic that the Iranians know well, and may just respond to.

Alex Fattal is a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University. He coordinated the Free the Hikers campaign to liberate his brother Josh Fattal and two other Americans from Evin Prison in Iran.

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