Obama’s Proposal to Break the Impasse on Iran (Updated)

Illinois Senator (and presidential aspirant) Barack Obama, presumably in a bid to shake the lock that Hillary Clinton seems to have on her party’s nomination, has proposed “aggressive personal diplomacy” as a means of resolving the outstanding issues between Iran and the United States:

CHICAGO, Oct. 31 — Senator Barack Obama said he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran if elected president, and would offer economic inducements and a possible promise not to seek “regime change” if Iran stopped meddling in Iraq and cooperated on terrorism and nuclear issues.

In an hourlong interview on Wednesday, Mr. Obama made clear that forging a new relationship with Iran would be a major element of what he pledged would be a broad effort to stabilize Iraq as he executed a speedy timetable for the withdrawal of American combat troops.

Mr. Obama said that Iran had been “acting irresponsibly” by supporting Shiite militant groups in Iraq. He also emphasized that Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and its support for “terrorist activities” were serious concerns.

But he asserted that Iran’s support for militant groups in Iraq reflected its anxiety over the Bush administration’s policies in the region, including talk of a possible American military strike on Iranian nuclear installations.

Making clear that he planned to talk to Iran without preconditions, Mr. Obama emphasized further that “changes in behavior” by Iran could possibly be rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization, other economic benefits and security guarantees.

“We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith,” he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. “I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior.”

Since this is the posture that I’ve been encouraging for several years here at The Glittering Eye, I applaud Sen. Obama for articulating that position now. As I’ve noted before, our sticks are not credible and the carrots we’ve been proffering haven’t been juicy enough. The key problem is that we haven’t wanted to offer anything to the Iranians that they really want. Sen. Obama proposes that we do so by offering security assurance and that would be a breakthrough in U. S.-Iranian relations.

My friend Rick Moran is in substantial agreement with me:

There are other carrots we can hold out to the Iranians including unlimited access to enriched uranium for their power plants as well as joint enrichment projects on Iranian soil with other nuclear powers. These are similar deals we’re making with the North Koreans and hold out the promise to end the threat of nuclear weapons from that country.

I realize my conservative brethren are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at this point. The IAEA? ElBaradei’s nuclear enablers? Obviously, such a deal would depend on full disclosure of the Iranian nuclear program and unconditional cooperation by the mullahs in the kind of monitoring and inspection regimes that would be effective. It would take time to negotiate and set up and in the end, may not even be 100% satisfactory to the United States and our allies.

But as an alternative to war, it’s a good start.

Make no mistake. Military options short of annihilating the Iranians with nuclear weapons are rather more likely to achieve the opposite of the results that we might want, moving the Iranian people to rally ’round the present regime rather than removing it. So something along the lines that Sen. Obama is proposing is really our best available path.

There’s at least one particular in which I disagree with Sen. Obama. Iranian actions may be responses to American policies but they aren’t solely responses to our policies. After all, the Middle East is Iran’s neighborhood and they’d have vital national interests in the region whatever Americans did. It isn’t all about us.

Can a course be steered by which both U. S. and Iranian interests are respected? I think it will be difficult but I’d certainly like to see somebody try. The very first step is for both sides in such a negotiation to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other’s interests.

Update

With all due respect to Ed Morrissey, what Sen. Obama is proposing is not a rerun of offers made in 2005. The part that caught my eye in the article in the NYT are the words “security assurance”. To the best of my knowledge that’s a dramatic departure from present U. S. policy with respect to Iran.

12 comments… add one
  • Can a course be steered by which both U. S. and Iranian interests are respected?

    But what if US and Iranian interests are fundamentally incompatible? How would negotiations be of any use in that case, other than as window dressing?

    Frankly, it seems to me that chaos in Iraq perfectly suits Iranian interests, whether the US stays or goes. (They would probably prefer that an Iranian-backed Shia faction take power and the US leave, but chaos seems to be a reasonable second choice for them.)

    Second, there is EVERY REASON for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons (and the weapon systems to deliver them in a military context) regardless of the US pressence or eventual absense in the region. They border one nuclear armed nation (Pakistan), and have several others in close proximity (India, China, Russia and Israel). All five of those nations have interests that involve Iran (and its oil), and those interests more often than not conflict with Iran, the other nations mentioned, or both. Add to that the general political instability of that area of the world, and its no wonder that Iran would want whatever weapons it could get its hands on. That’s simple national interest, and I would think any truly independent Iranian regime would come to the same conclusion. (And oh yeah, the US and its allies now occupy two of the nations that border Iran. But that’s just the cherry on the top.)

    And all of the above completely ignores the fact that the Ayatollahs have a fundamentally different world-view than we do. All of this adds up to incompatible long-term and short-term interests.

  • Also, regarding the words “security assurance”: What good is any US “security assurance” if the next President can simply decide to reverse course? (For that matter, any President could switch course on his own policies. Bush went from non-nation builder to nation builder after about 9 months in office.)

  • I have to agree with Icepick here. If I were playing Tehran’s cards I’d want nukes, I’d want a weak and divided Iraq, and I’d want hegemony in the Gulf. Each of those place Iran in direct opposition to the US, and to our Saudi “friends.”

    It’s hard for me to see where we have a lot of negotiating room with Iran, or they with us for that matter. They don’t seem to believe we have much of a stick, and I don’t think our carrots are juicy enough. If they play ball with us they end up relatively secure as a regime, perhaps, but they’re permanently in a box, permanently limited. If they defy us they have an even money chance of ending up as the regional superpower, of becoming a second tier player as opposed to being stuck in the third tier.

    I don’t get the feeling they want to play double A ball forever.

  • But what if US and Iranian interests are fundamentally incompatible? How would negotiations be of any use in that case, other than as window dressing?

    The principle problem in this debate is that we don’t know for sure what, if anything, Iran is willing to concede and we don’t know with any degree of certainty if our interests are incompatible. And that’s really the problem of diplomacy-by-pulpit as opposed to frank and private discussions among diplomats – discussions that don’t have to take into account the many audiences public diplomacy pronouncements do. Consider, for example, the very different public statements during the Cuban missile crisis compared to the actual positions each side was willing to take.

    In my view, we need to talk to Iran simply in order for each side to understand the others’ true policy objectives and interests to find out if a negotiated settlement is possible. ISTM that Mr. Obama makes many unsupported assumptions about Iranian interests and intent and so do those on the other side who claim that negotiations are flatly impossible. We simply don’t know and we won’t know until we sit down with them and lay it all out.

    It’s also important to note that private discussions will not only make Iranian positions clear to us, but also OUR positions clear to the Iranians. One concern of mine is that the Iranians may not take our threats of attack seriously – they may believe they are simply bluster (and indeed, there is some evidence for this) and such a misunderstanding could easily lead to a miscalculation that leads into war. Does Iran know where our red-lines are on interference in Iraq? Who knows – and that is a problem.

    As an example, we know now that Saddam did not believe the US would really topple his government until the 3ID drove through Baghdad and parked its tanks on the lawn in front of his palace. To the end he believed the US would stop short, or that France and Russia would intervene to save his regime. Saddam badly miscalculated and completely misunderstood US intent.

    We must ensure Iran understands our position clearly, just as we must understand theirs.

  • PD Shaw

    Iran is a hegenomic aspirant hellbent on exporting its revolutionary regime. I think the historical lesson draws from the Clinton administration’s attempt to forge a grand bargain. I do not believe this regime is capable of enforcing “changes in behavior” that are inconsistent with the revolutionary cauldron its legitimacy draws from. I think our diplomatic efforts are better focussed on Europe and more sticks:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119395334332079580.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

  • It’s also important to note that private discussions will not only make Iranian positions clear to us, but also OUR positions clear to the Iranians.

    This and the other points you make wrt discussions with Iran are fair enough. And I wouldn’t mind some behind-the-scenes discussions so everyone can have “open and frank” conversations. I just don’t think that (1) Obama wants to have private discussions, and that (2) any ‘negotiations’ would actually accomplish anything positive. (Additionally I doubt that any of the current crop of candidates will have the diplomatic savvy to get anything out of private discussions. And we know the current President is neither willing nor able to do so.)

    But I don’t think the situation between Iran and the US now can be compared to the US/USSR staredown during the Cuban Missle Crisis for one reason: The US and the USSR both had good reasons to avoid getting involved in a war that was likely to go nuclear. In that they had mutual interests which could be used as a fulcrum for the lever of diplomacy. If the Iranians doubt that we can or will go to war with them (undoubtedly limited due to our lack of man-power), or if they don’t object to a limited war, then there’s no common interest.

  • Icepick,

    My comparison with the Cuban missile crisis was only to point out that there are often major differences between a nation’s public rhetoric and what it might be willing to do or say in private. Kennedy could not come out and publicly say “we’ll withdraw our missiles and promise not to invade.” For much the same reasons (domestic political concerns the chief among them), US and Iranian politicians cannot and will not come out and publicly state what compromises they’re willing to take.

    As for Obama, the thing that worries me is “personal” diplomacy. That makes me uneasy given his lack of foreign policy experience. Better to be a public face for diplomacy and let the experts do the footwork IMO.

  • For much the same reasons (domestic political concerns the chief among them), US and Iranian politicians cannot and will not come out and publicly state what compromises they’re willing to take.

    I understood that was your point. I’m stating that while that’s possible when there’s some mutual interests, I don’t think it will work when there aren’t any mutual interests. Further, I believe that’s largely the case with Iran & the US.

    Better to be a public face for diplomacy and let the experts do the footwork IMO.

    Agreed in principle. I’m not sure the US HAS any real experts in the field of diplomacy. (We have been historically bad at it.)

  • Dave,

    I’ve written a long post that elaborates on your critique of Morrissey’s analysis. I outline, in some detail, why security guarantees matter in the context of these negotiations.

    I would be very interested in your response. Here’s the link: http://fpwatch.blogspot.com/2007/11/logic-of-obama-plan.html

    Regards,
    JK

  • Icepick,

    I think you are assuming when you assert the US and Iran have no mutual interests and as I stated how can one really know (without projecting) what Iran’s interests are without actually discussing it with them in private? One might further argue that avoiding war is a mutual interest – one that has historically led to real agreements.

  • One might further argue that avoiding war is a mutual interest – one that has historically led to real agreements.

    Sorry for the late response. But I have to disagree that avoiding war is a mutual interest in all cases. If it were, wars would be less common. In this case, I believe that Iran may be judging (correctly in my opinion) that at the most the US could only wage a very limited war against Iran, and that as like as not Iran’s government mught actually benefit from such a war. (Even Iranians that are against their current government are likely to be pissed if some other country starts dropping bombs on them.)

    And while it’s true that I can’t KNOW what Iran’s interests are, neither can anyone having discussions with them, even privately, know that Iran is telling them the truth about what Iran’s interests are. (I assume that any country will lie if it believes their is benefit in it.) So all I can do is try and analyze the situation in a broad sense.

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