Monday, February 4, 2013

Fraternizing with the Enemy: The US and Iran Announce Openness to Bilateral negotiations

Yesterday as the Ravens and the 49ers faced off in the Super Bowl, two other global powers in a decades-long standoff finally made some progress towards peace. On Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden stated that the US is open to direct talks with Iran if it demonstrates that it is “serious” about negotiating. At the same Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded by saying that Iran is also open to direct talks with the US about its nuclear program. The window for diplomacy is certainly narrow: during President Obama’s first term, there was a single meeting between the two powers that only lasted 45 minutes. Still, the prospect of bilateral negotiations may be the only way for the two powers, and likely the rest of the world, to avoid a disastrous armed conflict.

The last decade or so has witnessed a continual spiral of relations between the U.S. and Iran. The problematic relationship was seeing some improvement at the beginning of the century due to the progressive attitude of former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami. His liberal party offered the promise of improved relations such as the US and Iran had not known since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the first year of George W. Bush’s presidency, “there were secret, back-channel talks in Geneva regarding Afghanistan between the United States and Iran, even before September 11th attacks.[1]

When the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit New York, Khatami was the first global leader to condemn the attacks, the terrorists behind them, and offer Iranian support to the U.S. in bringing justice. His regime was instrumental in the Afghan war, providing four crucial guarantees: he vowed to return any American military personnel that accidentally landed in Iranian territory, close Iran's borders to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaida, ask the Northern Alliance to facilitate US efforts, and cooperate with Pakistan to assist in the creation of a new government.

Initial cooperation between the Bush-Khatami governments broke down following the Karine A incident on January 3, 2002, in which a ship containing Iranian-made weapons and allegedly launched from Iran was intercepted by the Israeli Defense Force as it made its way to Palestinian militants. While there has been much speculation since the incident about whether or not the vessel was truly sent by Iran, the damage was already done. The incident is thought to have sparked the seemingly last minute inclusion in the so-called “Axis of Evil” in Pres. Bush’s State of the Union Address just a few weeks later, now considered the turning point from the nascent atmosphere of good relations towards more aggressive policies.

Since the initial phase of good feelings under President Khatami, relations have experienced a backslide due to President Ahmadinejad’s hardline stance on the US and Israel, and also due to American resistance to bilateral diplomacy and sanctions relief. Yet President Obama has a new opportunity with the recent overture by the Iranian Foreign Minister to set the relationship back on a peaceful track. A recent Foreign Policy article by Reza Marashi pointed out that by bringing Iran back into the global fold, the United States can improve its standing on seven (yes, seven) of its major security issues: nuclear nonproliferation, energy security, the conflict in Syria, the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, continued strife in Iraq, counterterrorism efforts and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Surprisingly enough, Iranian and American positions on these issues largely differ in rhetoric, not substance. According to the 16 US intelligence agencies, Iran has performed no nuclear weapons-related tests since 2003, has no active nuclear weapons program, and has not made the political decision to pursue nuclear weapons capability. They are pursuing a path known as “nuclear latency,” or the enrichment of uranium for energy purposes that leaves open the option of conversion to nuclear weapons for whatever reason, a process that takes at minimum a year and thus would be detected by intelligence agencies well before Iran ever had a weapon. By negotiating to cap uranium enrichment at 5 percent, allow IAEA inspectors into all facilities, and shipping already high enrichment uranium to agreed upon third parties, the US could dismantle Iran’s weapons capability while leaving its nuclear power facilities intact.

Energy security for the United States will only be of rising importance in the coming decades as resources grow scarce the world over. By providing sanctions and oil embargo relief to Iran, the US can both improve relations, help to ameliorate Iran’s dire economic situation, and appease European allies who are waiting with baited breath to lift their embargoes on Iranian oil and natural gas. This would be an excellent bargaining chip to achieve the cap on enrichment: sanctions relief in return for a 5 percent limit. As President Bush said in 2004, "We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran." In order to reclaim an American seat at the table with Iran, sanctions relief cannot be out of the question, nor can it come with the price of regime change in the country.

In Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Iran and the US essentially want the same things: stability, security, and less conflict. Despite the fact that Iran has thus far stuck behind longtime ally Bashar al-Asad, switching their support for the opposition and assisting with a peaceful transition between governments would gain widespread popular support within Iran and the rest of the Arab world, where Iran is seeking greater influence. In Afghanistan and Iraq, viewpoints converge further: not only does Iran benefit from peace in these countries, they have already made major investments in them towards stability and security. Iran also has a large investment in counterterrorism in the region and constantly deals with threats from insurgent groups even within its own borders, especially in the restive Sistan-va-Baluchistan region. In these cases, Iran is a regional partner for peace, if only the United States can be made to see it as such.

The trickiest issue is that of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iranian-Israeli relations, which are in even worse shape than those with the US. If the United States were to provide sanctions relief in return for enrichment caps and inspection access granted to the IAEA, however, the following cycle (properly managed) could occur:
I.     Enrichment caps alleviate Israeli fears of a nuclear armed Iran and thus lessen the tensions between the two
II.     The Iranian economy improves and scapegoat issues such as “anti-Zionist movement” in Iran lose power
III.  Both Iran and Israeli will have some ideological flexibility to resume relations due to the removal of an existential threat
IV.  Improved relations lead to more collaboration, greater security for all nations
Although this is an extreme simplification of the aftermath of resumed US-Iran relations, it is a view supported by most experts in the field.

By engaging in bilateral diplomacy, taking the focus off nuclear weapons alone, providing tit for tat deals on uranium enrichment, and keeping in mind that the relationship will take years to heal, President Obama has a unique opportunity to turn a former enemy into, if not a friend, at least a partner at the bargaining table. Although the offer of talks is still tentative (any talks would have to be approved by the Grand Ayatollah Khameini), the P5+1 talks in Kazakhstan on February 25 will be a step in the right direction. While ideologically repugnant to some, when faced with the alternative of a costly, deadly, possibly nuclear war, even the hardliners have to admit there is something to be said of diplomacy between the US and Iran.

[1] Milani, Mohsen M., "Iran's Policy Towards Afghanistan," Middle East Journal 60.2 (2006): 235-56, p. 246.


  1. Well reasoned and strongly supported argument as always, Ms. Kelberer

  2. Great post it was a pleasure to read!! :-) Shannon