The Case for a US-Iran “Grand Bargain”


Flynt Leverett previously served as Senior Director for Middle East Affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and is now the Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative at the New America Foundation.
At 2 pm today, he will be offering this testimony, “All or Nothing: The Case for a US-Iranian ‘Grand Bargain’” at a hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform.
As usual, Leverett is mesmerizing in his sober, serious, analytical take on what needs to be done with Iran and how to correct our course.
From his intro that advocates abandoning incrementalism, with which I fully concur:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Bush Administration’s refusal to pursue comprehensive, strategic engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran is profoundly misguided, and is imposing real costs on American interests in the Middle East and the war on terror. In recent years, a growing body of politicians, distinguished foreign policy hands, and eminent persons’ groups — including a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force and the Iraq Study Group — has advocated more sustained U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran.
In almost all instances, recommendations for diplomatic engagement with Iran take an incremental approach. In this approach, the United States would identify particular areas where American and Iranian interests presumably overlap — e.g., post-conflict stabilization in Iraq or counter-narcotics initiatives in Afghanistan — and engage Tehran on those specific issues. Assuming that Washington and Tehran were able to cooperate productively on those issues, establishing a minimum level of “confidence”, the range of issues under discussion could be gradually expanded.
This kind of incremental approach seems prudent and relatively uncontroversial — except to the strategically autistic opponents of any engagement with Iran. Unfortunately, incrementalism will not work to produce sustained improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations. Advocates of incrementalism ignore an almost 20-year history of issue-specific engagement between the United States and the Islamic Republic: regarding Lebanon, Bosnia, and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. In each case, as my wife and former NSC colleague Hillary Mann documents in her testimony, it has been the United States which declined to expand tactical cooperation on specific issues to explore possibilities for a broad-based strategic opening between our two countries.
Today, the United States is pursuing extremely tentative issue-specific engagement with Iran regarding Iraq. The Bush Administration has also indicated a highly conditional willingness to engage in multilateral talks with Tehran over Iranian nuclear activities.
However, given the record of U.S.-Iranian tactical engagement since the late 1980s, at this point Iran is unlikely to offer significant cooperation to the United States — whether with regard to Iraq or on the nuclear issue — except as part of a broader rapprochement with Washington that addresses Tehran’s core concerns. This would require the United States to be willing, as part of an overall settlement, to extend a security guarantee to Iran — effectively, an American commitment not to use force to change the borders or form of government of the Islamic Republic — and to bolster such a contingent commitment with the prospect of lifting U.S. unilateral sanctions and normalizing bilateral relations.

The rest is here.
— Steve Clemons


8 comments on “The Case for a US-Iran “Grand Bargain”

  1. Steve O says:

    I am consistently impressed by the thoughtfulness of both the commentary and responses posted on this blog. This exchange qualifies as a BGO (blinding glimpse of the obvious). If bush has the hutzpa to parade around sarkozy and emphasize the historical value of strategically related interests, someone has to have the guts to expose his hypocrisy. The point about our nation’s emphasis on inalienable rights of the governed is spot on and sorely misapplied in our rhetoric. As a society either we concede to recognizing concepts like respect and mutual accountability or there is no deal. Everyone remember reading Covey ? Finally the bully in the sandbox eventually gets what’s coming to him. Too bad our national character ends up the big loser continuing on this path. 14 months and counting….odds are the level headed likes of Leverett’s lucid analysis will not be heeded in time.


  2. Dan Kervick says:

    If the US fails to seek rapprochement with Iran, it will be seen as one of the most inexplicable strategic omissions and missed opportunities in US history.
    Among the many benefits of a closer relationship with Iran, I would include this one: The Iranians are natural enemies, we might say, of the militant Salafist movements that have proliferated in recent years and that are responsible for the bulk of the terrorism that threatens the US and its citizens. That includes al Qaeda. These movements are fanatically hostile to Shia Muslims, who they view as apostates. Iran’s intelligence agencies are bound to possess an abundance of information on Salafist networks and activity in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Gulf states, information they are doubtless in a better position to acquire and interpret than Americans.


  3. ... says:

    the media isn’t onside…
    newsflash – bush and sarkozy are opposed to a nuclear armed iran…
    first it was bush opposed.. now it is bush and sarkozy that is really newsworthy! not… newsblogs seem irrelevant in the face of the regular onslaught from the mainstream media…


  4. Linda says:

    I pretty much agree with Rich. Leverett probably is a lot more than merely “sober, serious, and analytical.” He also has a very good sense of humor to coin a phrase like “strategically autistic!”


  5. jon says:

    The US has avoided or sabotaged previous opportunities and initiatives that could have led to large scale resolution of disagreements between the US and Iran. This administration shows no inclination or aptitude to remedy this disaster. rather the opposite – at every step they only seek to increase the level of hostility and noncooperation.
    Perhaps Iraqi circumstances point to a way out. They have had some tactical cooperation over borders, and the recently reported release of 9 Iranians taken prisoner over the past year is indeed an optomistic sign.
    More likely we will see China develop an energy trading partnership, Russia a defense alliance, and Europe a trading and cultural exchange. That would leave the US on the sidelines.
    It’s always been the US’s game to lose. Now it’s for keeps.


  6. rich says:

    Leverett: Iran hardliners are “strategically autistic.”
    (The only valid response is bound to be that oil does have its cost.)


  7. Hypatia says:

    Steve Clemons writes: As usual, Leverett is mesmerizing in his sober, serious, analytical take.
    Hmmm. I’ve become a Leverett fan, after seeing him on CSAPN several times. But IMO he is never mesmerizing. However, he is always sober, serious, and analytical. Which is a good thing.


  8. rich says:

    Leverett’s got it right. And, though clearly going in the right direction, seems to be operating (effectively) within the confines of acceptable policy to stretch what’s considered “thinkable” thought.
    I’ve commented here several times that the only politically profitable and economically tenable route is simply to reverse course. What’s required is a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, and that boils down to a Cheney-goes-to-Teheran moment–which has a different ring to it.
    I read Leverett to the break—thinking ‘But Iran is willing; it’s BUSH who adamantly refuses to negotiate in good faith’–and Leverett came through with the same point after the link!
    And though Leverett couches his language to avoid sounding impolitic, he correctly identifies Iran’s eminently reasonable, wholly justifiable “core concern”: recognition of Iran’s sovereignty. It should be noted that Bush’s position: that Iran cry uncle and literally obey, “follow orders” from a foreign nation, is tantamount to what is in practice a fascist policy. Under any honest examination, it does default to that, substantively.
    In short, it’d be far more profitable to SELL nuclear energy technology AND weapons capability to Tehran, perhaps coupled with an Palestinian state (w/Israeli guarantee)–than to initiate a war in a failed attempt prevent that capability.
    It’d be preferable, too, under any reasonable definition: War to prevent nuclear capability is ludicrously, fundamentally unsound. It has the stink of “we had to bomb the village to save it.” It’d speed, not prevent, Iran’s motivation to acquire nuclear capability, not to mention proliferation generally. And nuclear capability is inevitable. Might as well profit from it.
    If George Bush can unilaterally opt out of international treaties, Iran has every legitimate capability–and every intrinsic right–to do the same. What’s saucy for the goose is saucy for the gander.
    The political capital to be reaped is enormous. Any sane lame-duck Prznt should leap at the chance. The economic gains are immense, in terms of pure profit alone. Weighed against the irreparable harm of the alternative, it’s a no-brainer.
    Leverett has to observe the niceties of the Establishment, and can’t upset anyone’s tea-carts on this. But official Washington has painted itself into a corner, and cannot sustain or defend their position regarding negotating with Iran–much less examine them honestly and in the open.
    Essentially, America is denying both sovereignty and security to Iran, unless the good ole USA is allowed to DICTATE internal Iranian governance and/or policy. Or in LEVERETT’s words:
    “This would require the United States to be willing, as part of an overall settlement, to extend a security guarantee to Iran-—effectively, an American commitment not to use force to change the borders or form of government of the Islamic Republic.”
    Our own Constitution and Declaration of Independence define from whence rises the legitimate power to govern a nation. In IRAN, by definition, the source of legitimacy is not the White House. Any attempt to force our will upon other nations–or otherwise fraudulently manufacture such legitimacy–will deliver political and economic costs of unforeseen magnitude upon this country.
    The soft power rooted firmly in our own Constitution supplied the just political cause that defeated Japan and Germany in WWII. The insight of our Founding Fathers outlines a raw power more strategically valuable than any ‘RealPolitik’ that deploys mere might of arms. It was always a grievous, costly, irrational error not to apply our domestic political principles abroad, and extend our liberties to any individual, at least as a matter of practice. The wording is “ALL men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
    Without that, who are we?
    (And do note these Liberties are intrinsic to our being, and thus it is physically impossible that such Rights could be suspended; there is no political capability to do that–literally. They can be denied, illegitimately. But any rationalizations of the status quo, brittle with tradition and weak from failed legal precedent, fall before Reasoned examination of the issue. I refer any doubters to Bush/Cheney, who provide all the proof needed: without treating our core principles as bright lines, as inviolable Rights, we we hit that Slippery Slope like a wino hits the skids. For expedience we invert the character of our nation and pervert our own laws and governance–and get to appreciate the view from rock bottom. Doubters of this Truth are but Naysayers of America itself.)


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