A key question for the next American president, according to two scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is not whether to talk to Iran, but how to engage, and what topics should dominate the agenda.
In a joint presentation at the Carnegie Endowment's Washington, DC, offices, Karim Sadjadpour and George Perkovich argued that Iran was too important for Washington to ignore, given Tehran's influence in key areas of concern for the United States. "The crux of the issue," Sadjadpour observed, "is not whether we should have dialogue, or why we should have dialogue, but how to go about doing so."
In their October 16 presentations, Perkovich and Sadjadpour devoted considerable time to the nuclear issue, with both stressing that a resolution of existing dilemmas could occur only within the context of broader US-Iranian dialogue. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For example, Perkovich argued that the American political system would not easily accept a deal in which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities, but declined to curb aggressive policies and rhetoric toward Israel, or contribute toward resolving other areas of Iranian-American tension.
Sadjadpour maintained that any bilateral dialogue should aim to dissipate decades of "deep-seated mutual mistrust" and misunderstanding that have characterized relations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In his view, Iranian leaders believe "that the United States can't live with an independent Islamic government in Tehran," and therefore Washington aims "to go back essentially to a patron-client relationship with Iran which existed during the time of the Shah."
Sadjadpour noted that many Americans also harbor misgivings about Iran, but he urged the next US president to probe directly the issue of what motivates Tehran's anti-Americanism: "Is Iran's foreign policy driven by this immutable ideology that was born out of the 1979 Revolution and really is incapable of changing? Or is Iran's behavior really a byproduct of its relationship with the United States? ... And could a different US approach ... beget a different Iranian approach?" Sadjadpour asked.
Since the historical record is mixed on this question, Sadjadpour hoped that the two countries could "build confidence on issues where there are overlapping interests," which he believed included "a lot more" areas than commonly understood, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and opposition to al Qaeda. He also asserted that "in terms of energy security, there's some common interests [concerning] Iranian exports to Europe to counter Russian energy leverage over Europe." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Perkovich took a somewhat different approach on forging a new era in US-Iranian relations. He argued that while the "nuclear issue can't be resolved in isolation," the two countries could pursue "reciprocating incremental steps that over time makes things a bit better." Perkovich indicated that the diplomatic chess match between Washington and Tehran currently was stalemated. "Neither Iran nor the United States has the leverage to get what is really wants on any particular issue," he said. Among the moves necessary to break the existing deadlock, Perkovich maintained that Washington needed to stop threatening to use military force to reverse Iran's policy of uranium enrichment, arguing that any American strike was likely to cause more problems than it solved.
The key aim at this stage, Perkovich suggested, was breaking the existing negotiating dynamic, under which "the more [the Iranians] hold out, the more they enrich, the more they get offered." The "psychology" must change by withdrawing any concessions if Tehran stubbornly refuses to negotiate ending it sensitive nuclear activities, Perkovich said.
According to Perkovich, if other governments see that neither Washington nor Israel is willing to employ force, and thereby possibly solve the Iranian nuclear problem without their involvement, they will actually perceive a greater need to press Iran to compromise. That, in turn, would reduce Tehran's ability to exploit differences among the countries that oppose its nuclear program.
Perkovich would consider endorsing a military strike if Iran actually proceeded toward developing nuclear weapons. An overt warning to this effect, which he believes would at least in private enjoy widespread support, would give the Iranian government an incentive to adopt confidence-building measures concerning Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Sadjadpour cautioned that while sanctions and threats might have a positive effect in the short-run by "signal[ing] to Tehran that President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's belligerent behavior is not going to reap rewards," over the long-term, such methods would only strengthen hardliners in Iran. He argued that Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative faction in Tehran would be the primary beneficiary of "isolation and sanctions," as such a situation would enable it to keep on distracting the population from the country's economic shortcomings and whip up anti-Western sentiment inside Iran.
Given this consideration, Sadjadpour urged that the next US administration adopt a conciliatory stance toward Tehran should an Iranian president emerge who genuinely desires a better relationship with the United States. American policies that succeeded in reintegrating Iran into "the world of normal nations" would facilitate political reform in Iran, and thereby empower the Iranian people, the "vast majority" of whom want a better relationship with the United States.
Sadjadpour and Perkovich downplayed expectations that Washington and Tehran could quickly negotiate a "grand bargain" that would resolve all their major differences. In Sadjadpour's assessment, "there are a variety of reasons why even a sincere, sustained American attempt at dialogue may not initially bear fruit." He considered the Arab-Israeli conflict a fundamental impediment given the vastly different perspectives on the issue in Tehran and Washington.
Sadjadpour also warned that many influential Iranians had an interest in perpetuating Iran's isolation because engagement and globalization would threaten entrenched political and economic interests. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be the main "spoiler," but the Revolutionary Guards, the protected commercial elite, and other elements of Iranian society are likely to act as staunch defenders of the status quo.
Even so, Sadjadpour hoped that, after "build[ing] confidence on these issues where there are overlapping interests," Americans and Iranians could "expand the conversation to encompass the issues where there are real points of contention which are very difficult to solve, like the nuclear issue and like the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.