How Can the United States Shape Iranian Interests and Behavior?

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President Obama came into office promising to change the United States’ policy toward Iran – but it was never clear exactly what that change would be.
On the one hand he denounced the thirty year failure of our policy toward Iran, suggesting that our policy of isolation and indefinite antagonism was counterproductive and needed to be revisited.
But on the other hand he called for “bigger carrots and bigger sticks,” which sounded more like a tactical adjustment than a fundamental strategic shift.
The chief question from a strategic point of view is, how can we shape Iran’s interests so that the Islamic Republic behaves in a way compatible with our interests? The Bush administration’s policy of isolation, threats, and sanctions was obviously ineffective.
Unfortunately, it appears more and more likely that the Obama administration is going down the same road. Offering to negotiate for a year while considering imposing extreme sanctions – including cutting off American and European gasoline imports – can hardly be considered a strategic shift.
As Flynt Leverett has written, the Obama administration’s policy has been one of “engagement with pressure,” offering to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the regime.
According to David Sanger, administration officials believe that crippling sanctions might “force Iran to negotiate.” And in today’s Wall Street Journal, Michael Jacobson and Mark Dubowitz claim that “Smart Sanctions Can Work Against Iran” – but nowhere in their article do they explain exactly how imposing more sanctions will move our interests forward. Does anyone actually believe that the Iranian regime – already suffering from a legitimacy problem at home – is going to come crawling to the negotiating table under pressure from Washington?
That is not going to happen. Iran is strategically important, and countries that are strategically important do not have trouble finding patrons. China and Russia can only hope that we will continue to force Iran and all of its energy resources into their arms.
The best way for Washington to shape Iranian behavior – including limiting the risk of Iran’s nuclear program – is to normalize our relations with the Islamic Republic. Only if we enjoy a normal relationship with Iran will we be in a position to shape Iran’s interests to our advantage.
— Ben Katcher

Comments

29 comments on “How Can the United States Shape Iranian Interests and Behavior?

  1. Outraged American says:

    Hagel got himself elected twice IIRC through ES& S, i.e., electronic,
    unverifiable voting machines. I do share Steve’s crush on him
    though. Manly man.

    Reply

  2. Carroll says:

    This could be good…or could be just more of Obama’s split personality style of decision making.
    Hagel Climbing the Ladder in Obama White House
    By Al Kamen
    Friday, August 14, 2009
    Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel (R), a senior administration official-in-waiting either later this term or in President Obama’s second term (if there is one), is taking another step into Obama’s national security team. We’re hearing Hagel is in line to co-chair the important President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (formerly known as the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board).
    Hagel, who is a longtime pal of Vice President Biden and who toured Iraq and Afghanistan with Obama during the campaign, already has been named to replace former House speaker Newt Gingrich on the Defense Policy Board, run by former deputy secretary of Defense John Hamre. The 16 members of the nonpartisan intelligence board, all unpaid, resigned during the transition so a new board could be appointed by Obama.
    The board, which usually acts in secrecy, is given access to key intelligence information and is charged with giving the president an objective analysis of the quality of that information. Prior chairmen have been folks such as former Bush I national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, former House speaker Tom Foley, Gen. Maxwell Taylor and former Johnson administration secretary of defense Clark Clifford

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  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    http://www.antiwar.com/orig/gsmith.php?articleid=14229
    An excerpt…..
    The 1976 Symington Amendment prohibits most U.S. foreign aid to any country found trafficking in nuclear enrichment equipment or technology outside international safeguards. Israel has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If U.S. presidents complied with the Symington Amendment, they would not deliver yearly aid packages to Israel totaling billions of dollars. Presidents make-believe that Israeli nuclear weapons don’t exist so Congress can legally continue shoveling the lion’s share of the U.S. foreign aid budget to Israel.

    Reply

  4. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Whats the amendment called? Is it the “Symington Amendment”? The one that makes it illegal to give financial aid to Israel because of its nuclear arsenal? Just one more law these pieces of shit in Washington figure they can ignore.

    Reply

  5. Kathleen says:

    Arabs to EU: Make Isreal Expose Nukes http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1249418604358&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
    Good luck with that. Call J Street.

    Reply

  6. Outraged American says:

    Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. However, our
    Catahoula LEOPARD Hound Mix, who was going to be euthanized,
    so we got suckered into taking her, makes us smile non-stop,
    because she’s just a goof. She wraps the hose around the orange
    tree.
    Pound hounds– they’re the best.

    Reply

  7. JohnH says:

    OW–are you suggesting that the Bible was WRONG about a leopard changing its spots?

    Reply

  8. Outraged American says:

    JohnH, you have to understand that Israel and the US are one
    country, joined at the nuclear weapon(s). Watch Congress and
    Cheney and Obama genuflect before AIPAC and you’ll see.
    BTW: I have a Catahoula LEOPARD Hound mix and her spots did
    change color. Change happens.

    Reply

  9. JohnH says:

    Brilliant post, rich. US foreign policy is indeed conducted in such a way that others’ national interests must be subsumed to US “national interests.” The basic problem here is the implicit definition of US national interest–subordination of others to US hegemony. It is nothing more than a juvenile power game–king of the mountain, constant fighting for position.
    In reality, isn’t the drive to control Iran a perversion of true US national interests? The US needs Iran’s massive energy resources for itself and for its friends, mostly European. Iran needs markets for those resources. Somewhere within that supply-demand state is a solution. Allowing Iran to sell its resources would bind Iran and the West together in much the same way that China has become bound to the rest of the world. By making the sides mutually dependent on each other, enduring peace would be a likely outcome, because neither side could afford to break its profitable commercial trade.
    However, that is not the game of the hegemonists. They demand surrender of the Iranian regime and subordination of Iranian interests so that the West alone can reap the bulk of the profits from Iran’s vast resources. And that’s why there can be no peace and no energy trade with Iran until one side is defeated or until the US changes its attitude and ambitions.
    Sadly, the hegemonists have not learned the lessons of Iraq. There they control the country but have yet to increase oil production. So what is the point of hegemony, when the US can’t get its way even after it has defeated the other country and control its resources?

    Reply

  10. rich says:

    By definition, Katcher’s question is a self-defeating non sequitur.
    How can America shape Iran’s national interests? It’s not our job. And it’s not our right. Katcher exposes a patronizing and highly problematic streak in American foreign policy, for the tendency to think it useful or contradicts everything we (supposedly) stand for, and every basic tenet of power relations that informed the American Revolution.
    Katcher’s question eviscerates the American national interest. We protect our own national interest first and foremost not by meddling with other nations, but rather by respecting their sovereignty and basic national interest.
    By definition, “shaping” a sovereign nation’s national interest cannot be done. Katcher’s question is a total contradiction in terms. It is an utterly bankrupt notion.
    Iran’s national interest will not change. It is the same as the national interest of every other sovereign nation. That won’t change no matter waht the U.S. does.
    Iran’s national interest boils down to being safe from harrassment, subversion, covert ops and military attack. Until the U.S. ceases to use those acts of war, we have no business assuming we can shape Iran’s national interest, or assist somehow in protecting it. So Katcher’s question and the project itself is Idiocy.
    Obviously, Iran’s national interest also includes not being subject to extortion: Teheran is totally surrounded by nuclear powers, none of whom are above twisting arms and making threats.
    Obviously, Iran’s national interest also includes access to and control over resources, including water, food, and energy; as well as the ability to conduct international relationships. Iran has every right and duty to pursue and protect those assets and relationships – and to develop them as Teheran sees fit.
    Most important: as a sovereign nation, Iran’s national interest consists of maintaining the power to define and pursue its own interests, unmolested by arbitrary and unjust external interference. The national interest of any country consists of rejecting, parrying or halting the kinds of extortion & harrassment that are basically Acts of War.
    And Iran’s defensiveness arises precisely because America actively undermined Iran’s national sovereignty, through outright coups (Mossadegh, 1953), teaching proxy regimes to torture its own citizenry (CIA > Savak, c. 1970s), and illegal covert ops (Reagan, 1980s; Bush, 2000s).
    These are Acts of War.
    Want to end Iran’s hostility? Revert to a policy with enough basic integrity to adhere to American core political & legal values, while respecting Iran’s national interests and the international rule of law. Funny just how much, and how obviously, that’ll benefit the American national interest! Such a surprise! Who having read our Founding Fathers EVer could have guessed?!
    The ONLY way America can “shape” Iran’s national interest is by — you got it — respecting Iran’s national interest.
    The only way the U.S. can persuade Iran to stand down in defending their basic national interest is by removing the one, serious threat to their sovereignty. That threat is us.
    Disappointed at the remarkably disingenuous question, and at the refusal to face up to the obvious here. There is an attitude, an ‘approach’ if you will, a long-standing method in the foreign policy establishment that is offensive to the American way of life. It is anathema to everything America stands for and contrary to everything American soldiers fight and die for. And geopolitically, in terms of hard power, as well as the real font of useful power and influence (often wrongly termed soft power), it has cost us nearly everything America has. The only saving grace is the remarkably ability of our betters to forgive us, and to look forward. Real change is on the way. May it not be forced on us from outside by other, wiser heads.

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  11. JohnH says:

    “American friction with the Iranians seems to focus on two key elements…” This is only the latest incarnation of American hostility towards Iran.
    In the not too distant past, Israel was courting the Iranian mullahs and no one gave a hoot about the Iranian nuclear program. Yet, American hostility towards Iran was intense.
    So the root of the problem is not the Iranian government’s attitude toward Israel. Nor is it the nuke program, for which no evidence exists.
    Rather, American hostility towards Iran is rooted in the regime’s refusal to be compliant to American “influence.” The major problem with Ben’s piece is that he is recommending that the US change its attitude, which is tantamount to asking a leopard changing its spots. Nonetheless we can all hope…

    Reply

  12. PrahaPartizan says:

    American friction with the Iranians seems to focus on two key elements – Iranian support for groups opposing Israeli hegemony in the regions surrounding the former Palestine and any Iranian effort to expand its nominally non-military nuclear research program. I’ve seen nothing offered which would constitute a carrot to induce the Iranians to change their current positions. All we’ve offered is a larger stick, which we really can’t use. Why should the Iranians even bother to to listen to us?
    I suspect when we bitch slap the Israelis for their blatant disregard of their stated commitments to enabling the Palestinians to control their own nation-state, then the Iranians might sit up and take notice. Until then, they can ignore what we say.
    With respect to the nuclear programs issue, I’ve yet to see any offer which makes it impractical for the Iranians to discontinue their treaty sanctioned research. We continue to forget that they possess the right to perform the research they are conducting and that they’re abandoning that right needs to be compensated in some fashion. Why do we refuse to bargain on this issue? We need to offer the Iranians an iron-clad supply of below-market price nuclear fuel sufficient for at least two or three station reloads from a source beyond our immediate control. We need to make the Iranians an offer they really can’t refuse without revealing their real intention. We haven’t done that yet. Yeah, it might be expensive and the control mechanism through some sort of international commission sanctioned by the UN might be cumbersome, but the offer will force the Iranians to take notice that a big pile of goodies has been dumped on the table and they just might be able to take them home and sell the deal internally. Without any of this, we’re just playing at making offers to the Iranians.

    Reply

  13. PissedOffAmerican says:

    No Israeli soldier kidnapped, army lowers alert level
    Middle East News
    Aug 14, 2009, 6:06 GMT
    Tel Aviv – The Israeli military announced overnight that an eyewitness report of a kidnapping of an Israeli soldier near Ben Gurion Airport, south-east of Tel Aviv, had been false.
    Military chiefs heaved a sigh of relief, after checks conducted late into the night Thursday proved that all Israeli soldiers were accounted for and no kidnapping had taken place.
    continues…….
    http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/middleeast/news/article_1495395.php/No-Israeli-soldier-kidnapped-army-lowers-alert-level

    Reply

  14. Outraged American says:

    Gaza’s gonna get to get the F bombed out of it yet again.
    Israeli Soldier Kidnapping Suspected, Central Israel On High Alert
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-korda/israeli-soldier-
    kidnappin_b_259103.html
    This is probably yet again, SIGH, an Israeli false flag operation.
    Israel used “captured” soldier Gilad Shalit to take out Gaza’s
    primary water purification plant and slaughter as many
    Palestinians as she could.
    And then Israel used those meandering soldiers, the ones who
    were OVER the Blue Line and inside Lebanon to attack Lebanon
    in 2006.
    Why would the Palestinians capture an Israel soldier at this time?
    Cui bono? (Who benefits?)

    Reply

  15. Carroll says:

    “”… how can we shape Iran’s interests so that the Islamic Republic behaves in a way compatible with our interests?”>>>>
    Well this thinking is the first mistake. Where is it writ that all other countries must accommodate US interest..whatever the hell they are and which no one seems to be able to sufficiently explain?
    If one were to ask Iran ‘what they wanted’ they would most likely say..just get out of our business and put your pet pig Israel back in it’s pen.
    Don’t want Iran to have nukes? Fine, take away Israel’s nukes. Obvious solution. Problem solved.
    JohnH is right..’engaging’ is a 50-50 proposition.

    Reply

  16. JohnH says:

    The only reason I can see for continuing a policy that has failed for thirty years is that any other policy will not yield the result the US wants. Of course, the US cannot admit the result it wants. So it has to spin its campaign as countering the Iranian nuke, for which there is no evidence. Before that, it was countering Iranian meddling in Iraq, for which there was no evidence. And before that…
    So what are US ambitions in Iran? No one will say, least of all TWN. But the answer is obvious: domination and control of Iran’s massive energy resources and pipeline routes. There is simply nothing else of major strategic value in Iran. Pistachios?
    The problem with Ben’s recommendation is that normalizing relations with Iran will not result in US domination. Instead, it will acknowledge Iranian independence and sovereignty, an outcome that the ruling foreign policy establishment simply cannot accept. So the foreign policy establishment will go for bust and keep a policy that has failed for thirty years. To do otherwise will doom the credibility of the entire imperial project.

    Reply

  17. ... says:

    ben katcher – thanks for this article of yours which i strongly agree with.. what a refreshing idea to take a different approach.. it is a sign of insignificance and feebleness to continue to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results, but that ironically defines usa policy towards iran for the past however many years and which johnh articulates well..
    normalizing relations with iran would be a positive step.. i doubt the folks pulling strings in the usa would ever want something like that… back to war=money and who actually runs the usa being someone/thing other then who/what many think… i remain skeptical of the usa’s ability to change.. i wish i felt differently, but obama is proving no change in spite of his grand protestations otherwise..

    Reply

  18. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Its hard to imagine a position that surpasses “Secretary of State” as one that requires tact and diplomatic expertise.
    To talk from one side of your mouth about the desirability of “engagement”, while using the other side of your mouth to opine that engagement isn’t likely to succeed, and more “stringent” sanctions will be necessary, is counter-productive.
    Want to shape Iranian intersts and behaviour? Stop financing and abetting the crimes of Israel, take Israel’s nuclear arsenal out of the closet and openly admit that Israel’s nukes are one of the major driving factors behind Iran’s quest for nuclear deterence, and stop launching military adventures against Iran’s neighbors.

    Reply

  19. bangzoom14 says:

    Good comments by JohnH. In my opinion, the last 30 years of policy towards Iran has been the insanity. It’s time for C-H-A-N-G-E. And while you’re at it, through in Cuba as well.

    Reply

  20. Outraged American says:

    Who benefits from war? Simple question. Will your kids benefit,
    or your grandkids?
    NO, YOUR YOUNG ONES WILL JUST BE DEAD.
    Why should we be shaping Iranian interests and behavior? What
    the heck is it our business?
    Iran is not a threat to the US. She has not invaded a country
    since around 1747. She’s a signatory of the NPT.
    Alternative energy.
    It’s rather nasty that there are “think tanks” around trying to
    stir-up trouble, and of course the Zionists, who just need to
    STFU, and leave the world in as much peace as we can get.

    Reply

  21. Kathleen says:

    We could go home and mind our own business…Iran was doing fine until we overthrew Mosedegh…we’ve been meddling ever since. why not learn from our mistakes and quit making more? Afterall, the problem stems from our being in their midst, not the other way around.
    We are arrogant and self-centered in our “diplomacy”. Rarely do we relate to other countries as equal cultures…we always predicatre our proposals on our presumed superiority of interest and contributions to mankind.

    Reply

  22. Josh Meah says:

    Still, why does 30 years of failed policy mean a
    similar policy, not the same, in a different
    context, would necessarily be a failure?

    Reply

  23. Pahlavan says:

    Well said JohnH. As you know and some fail to recognize, we’ve had sanction on Iran for 30 years and they’ve been as effective as the funding for our home front’s war on drugs. When you consider how Obama is blanketed by more of the same super influential life long politicians blessing our society with their grand wisdom and foresight, the only change one can expect from Obama is a change in his own tone. The mullah’s took American hostages immediately after US froze assets that “Iranians” considered to be Iran’s fortune stolen by the Shah and his pack. They released the hostages, we never released their assets. Iran also froze their nuclear program the first time around in hopes of a security guarantee from the US, until two years later they concluded that we never had the intension of insuring their security to start with. We exercise two conflicting standards when it comes to the middle east, and we never ever ask ourselves whether our position can be interpreted as a racist ideology that’s conflicting and damaging to our stature and history as a whole. I often wonder if America is in a dire need to realign herself with the fundamental essence of its history.

    Reply

  24. JohnH says:

    bertignac seems to advocate continuing or escalating 30 years of failed policy. The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over again and each time expecting a different result…

    Reply

  25. bertignac says:

    European countries have a sanctions as a stick policy towards Iran. Why would normalizing the US’s relationship with the Iranian regime do anything but tell the Iranians that they can just move on more quickly, and with less trouble, in developing nuclear weapons, using terrorism as strategy, and continue to develop their power and influence in the Middle East?

    Reply

  26. JohnH says:

    “China and Russia can only hope that we will continue to force Iran and all of its energy resources into their arms.” Ben seems to be sidling toward an acknowledgment of Washington’s real ambitions in Iran (heresy!!!)–oil and gas.
    How about an extremely simple suggestion.
    1) Define what the US wants
    2) Define what Iran wants
    3) Negotiate a win-win solution based on MUTUAL respect and self interest.
    Strong arm tactics have not worked for thirty years. Meanwhile Iran’s oil and gas reserves become ever more precious.
    If the foreign policy mob should have learned anything from the Occupation of Iraq, it is that you can put a gun to an oil producer’s head, but you can’t make him produce more. Why is Washington so obsessively committed to military solutions that have proven themselves totally ineffective? The only explanation is that they must be totally bonkers.

    Reply

  27. Larry Eitel says:

    Excellent post. I thoroughly agree. Sanctions will not work, and in
    fact will in the long run end up immiserating the very people we
    want to have more influence in running that country.
    LE

    Reply

  28. Zathras says:

    The Iranian regime’s reason for being is in large part based on hostility to the United States, and has been for thirty years. “Normalization” between Iran and the United States is therefore bound to have a somewhat different meaning in practice than it would between another two countries.
    The question “then what?” arises after normalization (whatever that turns out to mean) just as it does after failed negotiations leading to further sanctions. After an American offer of normalization, presumably in exchange for nothing, comes an Iranian response that would be — what? The first Iranian reaction, actually, would probably be to use the American offer as a rebuke to Iranians now challenging the Ahmedinejad government’s legitimacy. This would represent indirect American influence on Iranian behavior, but probably not the kind we’re hoping for.
    Beyond the domestic politics, though, what would a unilateral American offer of normalization change with respect to the Iranian government’s nuclear objectives? Its objectives with respect to Iraq? Afghanistan? Lebanon or the Palestinians? If, as seems likely, the offer itself wouldn’t change anything in any of these areas, what is the plan to “…shape Iran’s interests to our advantage”? Well, there isn’t one; Katcher’s position boils down to that of the roulette player who feels he is losing betting on red and will have better odds betting on black.
    Leave this specific recommendation aside for a moment to look at a different subject: how the Obama administration’s position is evolving. During the campaign last year, Obama made what I considered a tactical error by avoiding personal attacks on George Bush. He criticized what he said were Bush’s ideas and policies rather than hitting Bush himself, which was a mistake in an election campaign because most voters had developed negative feelings about Bush personally while not being deeply engaged in specific Bush admininstration policies.
    The point is that Obama and his administration are still doing it. The alternative to isolation and hostility (the last administration’s policy) is engageement (Obama’s administration’s policy). The problem is that isolation and hostility between the American and Iranian government’s did not result from Bush administration decisions alone. Obama and his team expected that an offer of engagement such as was made last spring in Cairo would change the rules of the game, leaving Obama treading water with the same position toward Iran Bush’s administration might have taken, but unable to say so.
    Obama, coincidentally or not, is doing the same kind of thing in other policy areas; that’s why his White House hasn’t attempted to make an issue of Bush’s utter disinterest in health care reform as it struggles to enact its own. With respect to Iran, though, the administration is stuck with a public commitment to repudiate the last administration’s policy and an actual policy very much like the one Bush was pursuing when he left office. Having promised transformative change, Obama is finding out that this kind of change isn’t always up to him.

    Reply

  29. Josh Meah says:

    Interesting post, but why would the existence of
    alternative patrons necessarily mean that an
    Iranian regime under extreme sanctions —
    especially regarding pipelines — would not
    negotiate with the U.S.? What kind of assistance
    to Iran could be actually granted by Russia or
    China that is immediate enough to offset the
    political fallout the regime would experience as a
    result of major sanctions placed by the U.S.?
    As is stated in the post, the regime suffers from
    a legitimacy crisis — it doesn’t have the same
    legs to stand on that it once did — and most data
    indicates that the Iranian people want to
    normalize the relationship with the U.S.
    Previously, the legitimacy of the Iranian regime
    allowed it to do things completely contrary to the
    wants of the people, because the regime itself was
    not necessarily in question. When it comes down to
    it, the IRGC and the Basij militia cannot handle a
    massive insurrection of the Iranian people against
    a government that they finally decide is
    incompetent or unjust.
    To the extent that the Iranian nuclear threat is a
    credible one (many intelligent people question
    that assumption), placing pressure while
    simultaneously keeping a hand out for negotiating
    — while that pressure is still there — doesn’t
    seem like the most unreasonable
    strategy…especially if the negotiating is
    legitimate (that latter premise is also open for
    debate).

    Reply

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