Timing Engagement with Iran

Given that President-elect Barack Obama campaigned and won on a platform of engaging Iran diplomatically, the question now becomes not only how, but when. The timing is complicated, as Blake Hounshell of FP Passport points out, because of Iran’s upcoming presidential election, with some analysts (Brookings and CFR in a joint report) urging immediate steps, and others (CEIP’s Karim Sadjadpour) cautioning against giving Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hardline foriegn policy a diplomatic victory to run on. Foreign Policy Watch’s MDC argues that current circumstances — including Obama’s popularity in Europe — provide America with a strong bargaining position, and has his own sensible suggestions for taking advantage of that, without falling into the trap that concerns Sadjadpour. (See Babak Yektafar’s WPR piece for a compelling case for the weakness of Iran’s current position.)

But there’s another angle that needs to be considered, especially if Obama wants to maintain his popularity in European capitals, namely how bilateral American-Iranian engagement impacts the bargaining position of the EU3 (England, Germany and France) on the Iran nuclear dossier. Until the presence of Undersecretary of State William Burns at the last formal meeting, America had largely remained on the sidelines, with the tacit understanding that U.S.-Iran bilateral channels represented one of the carrots to incentivize an agreement.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, both advocates of a very tough line on Iran’s nuclear program, have already expressed concern that an immediate U.S.-Iran bilateral track will give Iran all the wiggle room it needs to drag the nuclear discussions out even more than it has already succeeded in doing. It’s important to remember that while talks stall, centrifuges continue to spin in Iran.

In his WPR piece, Yektafar argues that, “As a bold first step, the new administration must refrain from viewing U.S.-Iran relations exclusively through the prism of nuclear proliferation or Israeli security.”

Agreed. But I think that the nuclear negotiations might represent an effective entry point for American involvement, so long as it is well coordinated with the EU3, Russian and Chinese delegations that have been carrying the water in negotiations for the past three years. Once the U.S. is officially represented at the table in a way that ensures the process isn’t short-circuited, further bilateral dialogue (on some of the dossiers MDC mentions, for instance) could be engaged, conditioned on a staged schedule whereby progress on parallel tracks must be accomplished before they converge later on down the road.

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