A New Way Forward Is Now Possible With Iran

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Op-Ed Cleveland Plain Dealer
As current events demonstrate, the security challenges of the Middle East cannot be permanently solved solely through the use of American military power. On Iran and other regional challenges, the only lasting solutions will be diplomatic ones.
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"It's because of Iran's strategic importance and its influence in the Islamic world that we chose to probe for a better relationship between our countries.” 

President Ronald Reagan’s words, spoken almost three decades ago, ring true today. Despite the difficulties and the longstanding disagreements between the two countries, it is squarely in America’s national security interest to explore the new opening that now exists in U.S.-Iranian relations.

The election of a new, more moderate president in Iran and the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have set the stage for possible progress on nuclear negotiations.  And precisely because the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran poses tremendous security risks for the United States and our allies, the United States must test this opportunity.

The Iranian nuclear program is also not the only reason to “probe for a better relationship.” As the Syria crisis deepens, it becomes increasingly clear that diplomacy is the only way to achieve long-lasting resolution to the security challenges the United States faces in the Middle East.

While caution is necessary, there have been several signals from the new Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, that bode well for nuclear negotiations.

 “Our nuclear program is transparent but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” he said, and that Iran is “ready to engage in serious and substantial talks without wasting time."

This is consistent with his explicit campaign platform over the summer. His appointment of a U.S.-educated foreign minister and now nuclear negotiator for Iran, Javad Zarif, was widely interpreted as an indication that the new president is willing to back up his rhetoric with action. Zarif not only has close ties to the West but also has extensive experience with the nuclear file, having served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator with European counterparts during his time as the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. 

Rouhani has also struck a different note on Syria, by “strongly condemn[ing the] use of chemical weapons.” And the International Atomic Energy Agency has already scheduled another round of talks with Iran in late September.

The sanctions imposed by the international community have taken a toll on Iran’s economy, but frankly, they have failed to induce a change in Iran’s nuclear policies and have arguably strengthened the hand of Iranian hardliners who oppose negotiations.

While economic pressure can provide important leverage for U.S. diplomats, that is only true if they have the opportunity to use that leverage in negotiations. Economic pressure divorced from a diplomatic strategy will not succeed. An effective strategy for resolving the nuclear conflict in the short-term will employ targeted and flexible sanctions as a complement to diplomatic engagement. The first step, however, must be to resume negotiations.

There should also be a long-term vision in the U.S. approach. After several decades of mistrust and miscommunication, building confidence on both sides will be an enormous challenge, but the cost of abandoning negotiations is unconscionably high. A military strike against Iran would be a likely catastrophe, from endangering U.S. personnel and further destabilizing the Middle East to threatening the global economy and spurring another decadelong war in the Middle East.

Importantly, the military option would almost certainly fail to achieve the primary immediate goal -– preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. At best, military strikes may set Iran’s nuclear program back a few years. They would not eliminate it. Meanwhile, Western military action would likely unite Iran behind building a bomb, accelerate the nuclear program and drive it underground, and initiate a spiral into a full-scale war.

The liabilities of pursuing the military option argue strongly for taking on the challenge of negotiations. And there is good reason to be hopeful that negotiations will be successful, provided each side is willing to seriously engage.

There are specific steps that the United States will have to take in order to reach an agreement with Iran: First, accept Iran’s nuclear program under transparent and verifiable limits with proper safeguards. Second, be prepared to relax sanctions as Iran takes action. 

These steps are just a beginning; a comprehensive deal will require more intensive negotiations and defining the end result for both sides.

As current events demonstrate, the security challenges of the Middle East cannot be permanently solved solely through the use of American military power. On Iran and other regional challenges, the only lasting solutions will be diplomatic ones.

This article was originally posted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Comments (2)

  • saynotowar
    The only concrete step that can be taken is to move Iran's dossier to the IAEA where it belongs, lift all illegal and immoral sanctions.   
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  • HorowitzCSM1985
    Any comprehensive deal between Washington and Tehran must disentangle Iranian support for the war criminal Assad and the terrorist organization Hezbollah from inside its very structure. Iran is only one key to the future of Syria. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel hold the other keys, and none of them would be very happy with any deal that does not roll back the Iranian "axis of resistance". An Israeli military tilt against either Assad or Hezbollah or both is a likelihood if the US lifts the sanction regime while allowing some measure of Iranian enrichment. This has now become a firm Israeli red line. In the Syrian Civil War, Israel has become the wild card with Saudi Arabia strongly in its corner, while both Turkey and Jordan quietly assent. But a comprehensive deal, with a roll-back of the Iranian axis, will only be possible if Iran's strategic interests are satisfied, as well. The Syrian balance has been in play since the very founding of the Islamic Republic and recently the head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps was quoted as saying that for Iran: Assad's survival has become a red line. A Sunni victory in Syria will become not only an Alawite and Shia blood bath but the beginning of the next front to the war, Iraq, or worse, the Gulf itself. This cannot be a part of President Obama's plan for the US economy. So what will a comprehensive deal look like? It must include: a regional political framework that has the blessing of Iran and Israel, that can protect Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, that stops the flow of weapons into Syria and holds out hope for a moderate transitional authority that can write a constitution and hold an election, that is firmly endorsed by the UN Security Council, that is strictly verifiable, that is non-hegemonic, and finally it must remove all foreign forces from the region. In other words, a grand bargain or "Zone of Peace" is precisely what is required. But, time is running out and only through international cooperation can a dangerous and more comprehensive regional war be prevented. The days when the US could go it alone in the Middle East are over. The American People are against another war in the region; this is most certainly true. But at the same time, I am equally certain that they will not accept a deal with Iran (of all countries) that leaves their one true ally in the Middle East totally vulnerable. And make no mistake, Israel will act, if its vital interests are put in jeopardy. Now is the time to think big.
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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/09/13/new-way-forward-is-now-possible-with-iran/gna7

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