The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted the fourth session of the Crisis in the Middle East Task Force addressing the topic of “A New Iran Strategy” on Monday, November 19, 2007. The Task Force is a monthly dinner discussion series that brings together a high-level group of policy analysts, Middle East specialists, government officials and journalists for a year-long effort to explore means of addressing the region’s many problems.
The discussion focused upon the current state of affairs between the United States and Iran, as well as new approaches the Bush Administration might take to encourage Iran to enter into negotiations.
Participants agreed that Iran is of major interest to the United States, because of Iran’s persistence in enriching uranium as well as its funding and arming of U.S. enemies in the Middle East. One participant said that Iran is backing Hizballah, Hamas, Shi’i militias in Iraq and extremist forces in Afghanistan. The same participant noted that as vital U.S. interests are more engaged in the Middle East than in any other part of the world, so it is imperative that we make Iran a policy priority.
Participants then clarified the current U.S. strategy and Iran’s rejection of it. Thus far, the U.S. government has favored a multi-party approach to negotiations with Iran similar to that used with North Korea. One participant asserted that this is primarily due to the different influences that each of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) have on Iran. In both 2006 and 2007, the United States offered to temporarily halt U.N. sanctions against Iran and to offer other economic incentives in exchange for Iran suspending uranium of enrichment during negotiations. Significantly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that if Iran agrees to negotiate, she will attend and will discuss any issues which separate the United States and Iran. However, Iran continues to reject these offers.
Several participants questioned whether the Iranian government has a unified stance on U.S.-Iranian negotiations. For example, the intentions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government were questioned as a means of ascertaining who might be a reasonable negotiating partner on the Iranian side. The position of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, was considered in this regard. It is very difficult to make progress in the negotiations because of perceived differences within the Iranian regime and the ambiguity of who has power in guiding the Iranian side of negotiations. U.S. diplomats are not able to predict Iran’s next move with any certainty nor understand Iran’s overall strategy.
During the discussion, participants proposed ways in which the U.S. government might change its strategy in negotiating with Iran. One of the most significant criticisms was that the offer of negotiation is currently only conditional. One participant asserted that the conditions should be dropped so that negotiations can progress and diplomatic relations can be restored. Another participant countered this argument on the basis of three points: first, the United States’s European Union allies support the conditions; second, the United States cannot predict Iran’s reaction and it may not come to the table despite the absence of conditions; and finally, if Iran was not forced to suspend its enrichment program, then Iran might speed up its enrichment program during the negotiations.
A second criticism of U.S. policy toward Iran concerned the difficult balancing of U.S. priorities in the Middle East. In specific, the simultaneous pursuit of security in Iraq and a halt to Iran’s nuclear program may frustrate both of these efforts. Participants argued that the harder the United States pushes against Iran, the more Iran may exert its influence to destabilize Iraq. Given that the United States has interests in other parts of the Middle East, Iran can affect the success of U.S. policy through its allies and proxies in those arenas. Despite these concerns, one participant noted that Iran and the United States share several interests in Iraq and that the more Iran cooperates, the more likely that each county’s diplomats in Iraq will speak to each other.
The ability of the United States to change Iranian behavior was examined. It was argued that because Iran recognizes Washington’s desire to halt the nuclear program, Iran will purposefully stall to make as many gains as possible. Specifically, participants questioned the efficacy of sanctions in pressuring Iran to negotiate. One participant asked if Iran could also take advantage of the sanctions timeline to continue its enrichment program while another claimed that sanctions did not seem to be of much use since Iran could turn to new trading partners such as China. Other participants, however, noted that the European Union and other countries are now considering implementing new sanctions in the wake of the most recent report of Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Furthermore, the sanctions have created a coalition of most of the world’s nations against Iran enriching uranium.
Participants noted that the level of support differs among negotiating partners. As noted, China has been an obstacle to effective sanctions by increasing trade with Iran and approaching negotiations with a mercantilist mindset. Russia has also created hindrances for implementing sanctions. Although Russia supports the ultimate goal of negotiations of an Iran without nuclear weapons, Russia wants to pursue sanctions more slowly than the United States.
Participants also wondered if Iran has incorrectly perceived U.S. intentions and desires to negotiate. Though U.S. officials maintain that they are willing to negotiate, it was reported that key members of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence believe that the U.S. government is trying to effect regime change. The Iranian government has interpreted various past and present U.S. government actions as proof of its desire to change Iran’s government. President Clinton’s blocking of Iran’s oil deal with Conoco and the slender recognition that Iran has received for its efforts to aid post-Taliban Afghanistan were seen in this light. Moreover, some Iranian leaders believe the United States is using civil society institutions, both U.S. and Iranian, as well as students and professionals to achieve regime change. Participants also questioned whether the U.S. government’s public comments about keeping a military option on the table may confuse Iran and encourage the Iranians to see the Americans as employing coercion rather than diplomacy.
Participants argued that both Iran and the United States would benefit from greater understanding of each others’ motives and interests. As one participant asserted, Iran may suspect U.S. engagement with Iranian citizens, but it is to the United States’ advantage to continue these non-governmental relationships. Since there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries, student exchanges and professional training are a means of fostering understanding and breaking barriers between Americans and Iranians. Additionally, the U.S. government has engaged more Persian speakers and experts in Iranian culture to study Iran, analyze its actions and inform policymakers.
One participant argued that the near future may hold an opportunity for U.S-Iranian relations. In the views of this participant, unless the upcoming March 2008 Iranian parliamentary elections are rigged, reformers have a good chance of winning a majority. Additionally, Ahmadinejad and his supporters may moderate their strategy before the elections and show more willingness to negotiate.