Iran and the Grand Bargain

Eric Umansky’s CJR article (via The Interpreter) on the failure by the American press to cover Iran’s 2003 backchannel overtures, and the Bush administration’s refusal out of hand to consider them, has re-opened the question of whether a “Grand Bargain” with Iran is possible, what it would look and how we might get there from here. It’s admittedly a long row to hoe, but this Congressional hearing from last November on “Negotiating with the Iranians: Missed Opportunities and Path Forward” (Subcommittee forOversight on National Security and Foreign Affairs) is a good place to start.

To begin with, I think it’s important to acknowledge that both sides here have legitimate grievances, ones that are neither exculpatory, mutually exclusive or necessarily causal, but that are nevertheless intertwined in such a complex manner that parsing them might very well be impossible. Between Iran’s support for regional bad actors and American hostility towards the Iranian regime, deciding which is the chicken and which the egg probably depends on whether you’re mulling things over in Washington or Tehran. But the reality is that both are very real, and both are very resistant to conditional negotiations.

Significantly, though, the history of U.S.-Iranian relations does include successful tactical engagements. Ambassador James Dobbins (testimony here) and Hillary Mann Leverett (testimony here) both provide first-hand accounts of the aftermath of the Afghanistan invasion, which illustrate both the extraordinary degree to which Iran cooperated with our Afghanistan policy (which admittedly overlaped with their own), as well as the possibilities of what such joint coordination between us on common interests can achieve.

But in spite of the success of these limited tactical engagements at producing both results and diplomatic feelers that have taken place on their margins (including the 2003 Iranian proposal), they have failed to produce any broader followup. Dobbins and Mann both place most of the blame for this on American unwillingness to respond to promising Iranian offers. While particularly true of the Bush adminstration, past American administrations have also tended to take what they can get from one-off engagements with Iran, while refusing to offer the kind of security and legitimacy concerns the Iranian leaders desire.

The Brookings Institute’s Suzanne Maloney (testimony here) agreed that America has certainly missed opportunities for a broad diplomatic engagement with Iran, but also offered this all-important caveat:

Engagement can be a powerful tool for dealing with Iran, but there is simply no that Iranian leaders have ever been prepared (sic), fully and authoritatively, to make epic concessions on the key areas of U.S. concern. (p. 2)

She also underlined that since 2005, the U.S. has formulated a comprehensive policy that has gained unprecedented international (EU) consensus, culminating in the 2006 P5+1 offer. Maloney argues that this offer — conditioned on widely accepted EU, UN and IAEA demands that Iran freeze its uranium enrichment program — has been unfairly dismissed by administration critics. At the same time, though, she acknowledges that it was undermined by the Bush administration’s previous refusals to consider broader engagement (the offer’s big payoff), and its previous track record towards Tehran. In particular, the offer was burdened with the Bush administration’s refusal to recognize the Iranian leadership’s legitimacy (the so-called security guarantee).

Maloney agreed that not responding to the Iranian “Grand Bargain” overture was an error, but not as big an error as closing the “Geneva channel” that had been put in place for Afghanistan, following the Riyadh bombing in 2003. The Bush administration’s subsequent decision to close all communication channels — including limited, tactical ones — with Tehran not only imposed restraints on leverage we could exercise vis à vis Iranian influence, but also exacerbated instability in Iraq for the period of time that we refused to include Iran in any approach to the post-invasion security situation.

To Norman Podhoretz’ dismay, four of the five witnesses before the committee argued that despite the fact that there are no guarantees it will succeed, the diplomatic approach is only way forward. Mann argued thatIran’s regional importance makes containment and isolation unrealistic and counter-productive, Maloney that military strikes would damage our broader regional objectives with no guarantee they would succeed in halting nuclear program. (The committee hearing on the impact of a military strike can be found here.)

The available opportunities for limited cooperative engagement (Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon) as well as the past success of these engagements suggests that an incrementalist approach would be the most promising. But Flynt Leverett (testimony here) argued that due to the failure to exploit past incremental successes, Iran now views them with suspicion. He advocated instead for a non-conditional offer of a grand bargain addressing both sides’ mutual security concerns, and structuring a cooperative approach to regional stability based on concentric circles: GCC in the first ring, Afghanistan and Turkey in the second, followed by broader regional powers and players (the Arab League, EU, Russia, China, Israel).

Leverett’s list of Iranian concessions, though, makes me question how realistic it is to expect the Iranian leadership to sign on the dotted line, especially his top three:

-transparency on nuclear program and WMD programs;
-support two-state negotiated settlement of Israel-Palestine;
-cut off funds, supplies and training to Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Dobbins, who also calls for unconditional negotiations, concludes his remarks with the following passage:

It is time to apply to Iran the policies which won the Cold War, liberated the Warsaw Pact, and reunited Europe: détente and containment, communication whenever possible, and confrontation whenever necessary. We spoke to Stalin’s Russia. We spoke to Mao’s China. In both cases, greater mutual exposure changed their system, not ours. . .(p. 9)

The imagery is significant. Perhaps what is needed now is less a Grand Bargain than a series of small bargains accompanied by a Grand Gesture. The image of Nixon in Peking, or Sadat in Tel Aviv didn’t resolve longstanding grievances overnight, but they did mark history. An American president touching down in Tehran brandishing a Statement of Principles for an incremental normalization of relations might have a similar impact.

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