<em>Guest Post by Faith Smith</em>: Time to Talk to Iran


Faith Smith is a Research Associate at the New America Foundation.
Yesterday a top Iranian diplomat announced that Iran would stop enriching uranium if it was guaranteed a regular supply for their power stations. This declaration was greeted with skepticism by the top EU and UN negotiators who have been working with Iran on their nuclear program, but it does suggest that there is a constituency within the Iranian leadership that is willing to negotiate.
The sticks vs. carrots analogy has long been used when discussing Iran. Now, I’m not particularly fond of comparing any country to a stubborn animal, so I’ll replace these terms with sanctions and military threats vs. diplomacy. I believe in the latter. Diplomacy works.
The brilliance of the Cold War is not how or why it ended, but that it went on for so long without a major flare-up. And I credit that to strong diplomacy. Yes, the US military gave backbone to the words of our presidents and diplomats, but in the end it was direct conversation with our adversary that made it a cold war rather than nuclear annihilation. Why have we been so quick to dismiss the diplomatic approach with Iran?
John McCain has declared repeatedly that negotiating directly with Iran is naive and dangerous. Instead he proposed forming a “League of Democracies” to deal with the threat of Iran. There are several problems with this idea.

First, there is little time to waste; Iran’s regional influence and nuclear program continue to grow. The United States must engage Iran sooner rather than later, and forming international organizations is a long and arduous process.
Second, McCain’s idea is not new or fresh, but a repackaged version of Madeline Albright’s proposal for a community of democracies in 2000. The idea did not appeal to our democratic allies then and there is little evidence to suggest that it will now.
Third, the United Nations, has been conducting negotiations with Iran for years with nothing to show for it. It is time for the United States to play a more proactive role.
What about preconditions? The Bush administration said it will negotiate with Iran only if it halts its uranium enrichment program first. While we are concerned with Iran’s human rights abuses, their support for regional terrorist groups, and the absence of an apology for the hostage crisis of 1979, the most pressing concern right now is their nuclear program. Why would the Iranians sacrifice their strongest bargaining chip before entering negotiations? The Iranians are much better negotiators than that.
It should be noted that Iran is willing to talk to us. No preconditions. Let’s not forget the US imposed sanctions that Iran would happily do without. They could demand preconditions from us, but they haven’t.
We want Iran to halt their nuclear program. But what does Iran really want from the United States? In one word: respect. Like every nation born of revolution, Iran wants legitimization. The fact that the US has never formally recognized the Islamic Republic remains a thorn in their side.
An agreement to meet, formally–no more backroom meetings–would be a great show of respect to the country and its citizens. Sanctions and rhetoric have done exactly the opposite of their intended goal. The more we try to push Iran into a corner, the stronger their resolve and regional support. The moderates in Iran are weakened by a stubborn US administration and Ahmadinejad is proven correct.
If a policy does not work, it must be revisited or scrapped entirely. There is no glory in sticking with a failing policy especially when failure is likely to lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
We must talk to Iran. The international community has been doing so since 1979, but not the US. Let’s be clear, this does not necessarily mean talking to Ahmadinejad. There are alternative high level channels that are more moderate and approachable. In fact, Ahmadinejad might be out of a job soon. There may well be pragmatic presidents in both Iran and the United States before the end of the year.
To address a comprehensive plan for rapprochement, the New America Foundation will host New America Foundation/Geopolitics of Energy Program Director Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, who will discuss their new paper, “A Grand Bargain with Iran,” Tuesday, October 7th, at 12:00 pm EST.
–Faith Smith


19 comments on “<em>Guest Post by Faith Smith</em>: Time to Talk to Iran

  1. Kathleen says:

    I am so sick of the sketpticism with which we regard Iran and the other Arab nations. We are projecting our own aggresive motives on to them…after all it is we who are in their backyard, not the other way around.
    I am sick of carrots and sticks, too. It implies that we are in control of the situation,, like a parent, rewarding or punishing….how condescending… Why can’t we sit down together as equals, with honest intentions to do unto them as we would have them do unto us?
    Why is that such a tall order for a nation that calls itself, Christian?
    Carroll..I noticed that deal with India, too. Barf.


  2. JohnH says:

    Tintin–part of it is who gets the profits. But the more important question is: “who gets the energy?” You assume that oil and gas flow freely to demand, but that is becoming less and less so.
    Most projections of oil supply and demand forecast an excess of demand. We are in a producers’ market. So if producers like Iran prefer to deal with some customers and not others, future market conditions will allow them to pick and choose. They will also be able to choose terms (long term contracts) and distribution routes (pipelines) that impede open markets.
    The US is still trying to restore the conditions of 1990’s, when there was so much excess supply that countries Washington didn’t like could simply be cut off (Iraq and Iran). Today the opposite is true. Big markets like the US and Europe will contiue to be supplied, though supply may well be less assured than in the past, particularly during times of crisis.
    China has been quicker to realize the new situation and has been particularly generous in the incentives it provides to countries willing to provide it with energy. While China offers carrots, Washington insists on offering sticks, keeping sanctions in force against Iran even as energy prices rise.
    Natural gas is even more conducive to control by producers, since just three of them (Russia, Iran, Qatar) control 60% of reserves. Russia already has Europe over a barrel, and Europe really has no good alternative, at least in the short term. Russia’s invasion of Georgia highlighted the BTC pipeline’s exposure and Europe’s vulnerability relating to Caspian oil and gas. Installing a regime in Tehran friendly to the US and Europe could theoretically break Russia’s position.
    Logically, it should be Europe dealing directly with Tehran, competing against China and India for access to Iranian energy. But the US has inserted itself into the game as protector of the globalized energy trading system and convinced Europe to back off until the US breaks Tehran. So far the strategy has proven futile. It will be interesting to see how much longer it will be before Europe feels the need to break free. If Tehran does some big deals with China or India, particularly pipeline deals, Europe will have to get its act together quickly or be shut out. At that point the US protection force will have shown itself to be impotent, so its only recourse will be to yield to events or to bomb, assuring that nobody gets Iranian energy.


  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Politics scuttles plan to put US diplomats in Iran
    AP Exclusive: Plan for US diplomatic outpost in Iran dropped; political concerns among reasons
    AP News
    Oct 04, 2008 09:38 EST
    The Bush administration has shelved plans to set up a diplomatic outpost in Iran, in part over fears it could affect the U.S. presidential race or be interpreted as political meddling, The Associated Press has learned.
    The proposal to send U.S. diplomats to Tehran for the first time in three decades attracted great attention when it was floated over the summer, but has now been placed on indefinite hold as November’s election nears and Iran continues to defy demands to halt suspect nuclear activities, officials told the AP.
    continues at…


  4. Mr.Murder says:

    Talking to Iran. We dictate, they listen and agree?
    Talking (down) to Iran?
    Talking with Iran, Both sides have things to learn.


  5. Tintin says:

    JohnH…I think the crux of it is…who profits from the oil? Who gets
    the production contracts? US or non-US companies? What are the
    percentages in the profit-sharing plan?
    I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to envision Iran cutting off the
    US, the biggest consumer in the world, and one of the top three for
    the foreseeable future, I’m sure.
    Sure; they can jerk our chain a bit here and there, but at this point
    and with prices this high, too much jerking and the US will simply
    go elsewhere…geographically and technologically.


  6. Don Bacon says:

    Finally some sense from the MSM.
    TIME: Changing the Conventional Wisdom About Iran
    “Regardless of campaign-trail rhetoric, the need to talk directly to Tehran is fast becoming bipartisan conventional wisdom in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.”


  7. Carroll says:

    The US just o.k’ed a nuclear deal with India. US firm will supply India with the nuclear material and make much mucho from the deal.
    Don’t expect anything that makes sense from the US.


  8. Tintin says:

    “Why do you think the US has learned that lesson?”
    Sorry. Poor phraseology.


  9. JohnH says:

    Tintin sai, “I think we’re all connected. It’s a lesson the U.S. has had to learn; presumably China and the rest of the world already know it.”
    Why do you think the US has learned that lesson? The evidence is overwhelming that it has not. The Occupation of Iraq is a prime example, part of a long history of US meddling to make sure that oil resouces remain within its domain. Now the US is going down the same path with Iran as it did when it overthrew Mossadegh and installed the Shah.
    It’s not the nuclear weapons program (non-existent per the NIE) that is the primary point of friction. It is control over future disposition of Iranian energy resources that is the unspoken, central issue.
    To avoid having their strategic resources looted, many major energy producers–Russia, Venezuela, Iran–have taken measures to look out for themselves and protect their national interests as they perceive them, not as the US defines them. China can be expected to look after its interests as well. And who can blame them? How can China and Iran be assured that the US does not want to stick it to them–if not today, then when it suits the US? Why depend on the supposed good will of a third party, who clearly puts its own selfish interests first?


  10. Don Bacon says:

    The comments by Ali Asghar Soltanieh have no credibility. The Iranian Foreign Minister has said: “Most probably this was a misinterpretation or misunderstanding.”
    The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Saturday reaffirming three previous rounds of sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program. In response the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in an interview with Chicago Tribune that Iran will never overlook its enrichment right enshrined by Non-Proliferation Treaty.
    NPT: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.”
    But there is hope. In a significant departure from previous policy, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Department of Treasury, has granted permission to the American Iranian Council (AIC) to open an office in Tehran. AIC says it does not receive funds from either the government of Iran or the U.S. AIC hopes to establish the office to promote better understanding and exchange between the U.S. and Iran. The Iranian government has not yet approved of the AIC office in Tehran.
    The President of the American Iranian Council, Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, has just returned from his second trip to Iran within the last four months, during which he has been engaging in extensive shuttle diplomacy with American, Iranian and British officials, law makers and civil society leaders. His month-long tour of Iran this July enabled Dr. Amirahmadi to closely examine the domestic circumstances of Iran, especially with respect to a possible normalization of relations with the United States. He told AIC Update that “Iran is gradually readying itself to embrace a more normal relationship with the United States. However, Tehran has little hope that it could resolve its nuclear enrichment issue within the multilateral channel of the UN Security Council. In sharp contrast, Iran is increasingly interested in engaging the United States bilaterally, which it now thinks is a better channel to resolving its disputes with both the United States and the UNSC”.


  11. Saint Michael Traveler says:

    Bush and Ahmadinejad are not USA and Iran
    Majority of Americans reject President Gorge Bush national and foreign policies. Many Americans would not approve President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s outspoken approach to Iranian foreign policy. But these two men are not the nations; they have limited terms of office. Our present policy using the financial leverage and threat of physical attack has backfired over the last 20 years. This policy has promoted an opposite effect to the response we had anticipated; it has mobilized Iranian people in support of their government Our national interests dictate that we start a frank dialogue with Iranian people and reestablish diplomatic relations. The negotiations are not between President George Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is between American and Iranian people. Both nations have competent diplomatic corps. Iranian people all along have expressed their friendship toward the American people; while strongly have rejected the bullying policy toward their country. Dialogue and frank diplomacy should create a positive response from Iranian people.
    War is much too uncivilized.


  12. Tintin says:

    JohnH writes: “However, oil markets do not have to work this
    way. Countries can do long term deals with each other,
    essentially taking supply off world markets and locking certain
    countries’ oil industries out and others in. In this situation,
    future Iranian production could be heavily dedicated to China
    and not available to Europe or Japan. US’ Big Oil would become
    irrelevant as would the US role as protector of energy supply. US
    status would decline markedly.”
    But if the US, Europe, and Japan are cut off, those markets tank
    and where does that leave China? Selling electronics to Iran? At
    some point, the rest of the world is going to catch up to us as
    consumers, but not for a long time. Why would CHINA want its
    best customer, whose currency it holds trillions of, ever let Iran
    do something like that?
    Moreover, such a move would make oil astronomically expensive
    and make Canadian oil sands that much more affordable…deep
    water drilling off Brazil and elsewhere that much more
    affordable…would give even greater impetus to the renewable
    revolution which has the potential to make the US and Europe
    MUCH more competitive than China (air and sun being cheaper
    than oil at almost any price). And so on.
    So Iran and even China might WANT to stick it to the US, but
    surely realize that sticking it to the US really means sticking to
    themselves, even in the short term. We’ve seen how quickly
    “demand destruction” in the US dropped gas prices at the pump
    just as an example. I think we’re all connected. It’s a lesson the
    U.S. has had to learn; presumably China and the rest of the
    world already know it.


  13. JohnH says:

    Tintin: You are right in the sense that under current market conditions, oil does indeed flow to wherever the market is. The US set up this liberalized oil trading system and plays the role of being its chief protector. This is what make the US the “indispensable” nation to the rest of the world. We make sure that Europe and Japan get their oil. But in time of crisis the US is positioned to determine who does not get oil–a convenient, non-nuclear deterrence.
    However, oil markets do not have to work this way. Countries can do long term deals with each other, essentially taking supply off world markets and locking certain countries’ oil industries out and others in. In this situation, future Iranian production could be heavily dedicated to China and not available to Europe or Japan. US’ Big Oil would become irrelevant as would the US role as protector of energy supply. US status would decline markedly.
    Natural gas markets are even more threatening to US interests. Just 3 countries–Russia, Iran and Qatar–control 60% of proven reserves. Gas generally flows through pipelines, which are inherently more suited to fixed, long term contracts than oil, much of which moves by tankers whose routes respond easily to changing market conditions.
    Europe already depends heavily on Russian pipelines for its gas. Qatar is poised to become the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas. The US will become its largest customer.
    Iran is in play, unable to develop its enormous potential because of US sanctions. The US is determined to dictate the outcome.
    Iranian gas could help break Russia’s stranglehold on European supply if piped via Turkey. Or it could go overland to China or to India. Or it could be liquefied and flow to world markets like oil does today, the outcome most favorable to US energy companies and to the liberalized energy trading regime.
    Moreover, control of Iran or Afghanistan opens up pipeline routes from Turkmenistan and the Caspian Basin to the Indian Ocean, where the gas could be liquefied and shipped to world markets.
    So, yes, there is much, much more at stake here than the over-hyped argument about Iranian nukes. The issue really is about control over Iran’s massive energy resources and whether they flow to market by pipeline or by tanker. If the gas moves by pipeline, the US energy protection service and Big Oil lose much of their reasons for being.
    But how long can the US continue to provide a $Trillion energy protection service when its domestic financial system and economy are in shambles? If the rest of the world needed such a service shouldn’t they be willing to pay for it?


  14. Bartolo says:

    “Negotiation with preconditions” – Doesn’t that appear at Wikipedia under Oxymoron?


  15. Mr.Murder says:

    All Barack has to do, is make it understandable in bottom line terms.
    Cheaper gas and oil if we talk with Iran.
    Drilling offshore here will not curb the price right now, talks with Iran will. The immediate ease on energy speculation brought about by constructive talks is condition enough to develop dialog.
    We don’t need to set up preconditions, the market factors alone are reason to do this.
    In the meantime we bring our own sources on line to further ease price concerns until we’ve gone through the window of the coming transition.
    We can ease pricing and take on a greater share of their supply to remain competitive.
    Barack’s plan can develop diplomatic channels and save us money at the gas pump. Win-win situation.
    We have allies who can serve as conduits. We don’t even need to talk directly with Iran at the outset. We can get Jordan and Dubai involved to transition regional security within the framework. This makes certain major players buy into the deal, so all sides profit from the advance in ways that minimize terrorism by increasing the capital and business models within each member state.


  16. Tintin says:

    JohnH writes: “So what if the issue is really US control over Iran’s
    massive energy resources and whether they flow East or West?
    What will it take to get the US to give up trying to control oil
    spiggots and distribution routes worldwide?”
    But given that the oil market is a worldwide market, isn’t it the case
    that when oil flows, it flows wherever it finds a market? The US is
    still the largest market, and even when it falls to No. 2, it’s going to
    be pretty darn big. Why would Iran EVER give up on that money?
    Look, right now, huge amounts of oil are flowing East because the
    demand and money are there. We can’t stop that anymore than
    China can keep the oil from flowing westward. None of these
    arguments really make a lot of sense.


  17. JohnH says:

    This is all fine, IF you assume that Iran’s nuclear program is the real issue. What if it’s not? I’ve argued many times here that the nuclear issue is a red herring–a convenient marketing cover masking the US’ real intentions.
    In fact, Iran does not need a nuclear bomb when it can take out Ras Tanura and the rest of the Persian Gulf oil infrastructure if attacked. The sites are within easy range of Iranian missiles. And Iran has clearly demonstrated that it would do that. They took out Iraq’s oil infrastructure in the early 1980’s and crippled production and distribution. So why would Iran bother with a nuke, when they’ve already got deterrence by potentially holding the world’s oil supply hostage?
    So what if the issue is really US control over Iran’s massive energy resources and whether they flow East or West? What will it take to get the US to give up trying to control oil spiggots and distribution routes worldwide?
    Why is the foreign policy puditocracy so eager to accept what the US’ says at face value? Why not look at the situation critically and try to figure out the US’ real ambitions and then figure out how to resolve the situation?
    In fact, nothing short of surrendering its imperial ambitions will allow the US to give up on installing a quisling regime in Tehran.


  18. arthurdecco says:

    “Yesterday a top Iranian diplomat announced that Iran would stop enriching uranium if it was guaranteed a regular supply for their power stations. This declaration was greeted with skepticism by the top EU and UN negotiators who have been working with Iran on their nuclear program…” Faith Smith
    You supplied a link to support your statement that Iran announced they would stop enriching uranium if they were guaranteed a regular supply. Could you also supply one to support your claim that top EU and UN negotiators think they’re lying?
    Which “top” EU and UN negotiators exactly? Please name names and prove it with links.
    I’m so tired of the overheated rhetoric and blatant propagandizing we’re forced to read from everyone and anyone who is allowed to discuss Iran in print here in North America.


  19. iamcoyote says:

    I agree. I believe El Baradai at the IAEA would welcome efforts toward direct diplomacy, and would help facilitate negotiations quite readily. He’s been very consistent in his calls for us to just talk with Iran, who has been making noises for several years that they’d like to talk to us. I would love to see real diplomacy coming from the White House next year.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *