The Iranian Challenge | The Nation


The Iranian Challenge

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6. The pressure on Iran is working.

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Trita Parsi
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret...

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Obama’s abandonment of patient diplomacy—combined with Israel’s bellicose demands—has pushed us dangerously close to conflict.

Questionable. Pressure alone will not resolve the Iranian crisis. Iran has been under comprehensive US sanctions since 1995. These sanctions have undoubtedly been effective in hurting the Iranian economy and have made Tehran's pursuit of its foreign policy more costly. But they have not forced Iran to abandon its policies. In fact, after twelve years of sanctions Iran is more powerful and more defiant than ever. Ratcheting up sanctions will be nothing more than a higher dose of a policy already proven to be unsuccessful. The combination of ineffective sanctions and unrealistic demands will get the United States nowhere.

7. Stability in the Middle East can be achieved only through Iran's isolation. Quite the contrary. History teaches us that an Iran that isn't part of the region's security architecture will be more destabilizing than an Iran that has been incorporated into the region's political order. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, instead of pursuing an inclusive security architecture for the Persian Gulf, Washington opted to sign bilateral defense pacts with the Arab Gulf states while pursuing a new order in the region based on Iran's prolonged isolation. The policy was called "dual containment," the idea being that the United States would advance the Middle East peace process by containing both Iran and Iraq. What Washington failed to recognize was that the policy of exclusion provided Iran with incentives to undermine US efforts. And the weakest link in the American strategy was the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Without successful peacemaking between the Israelis and Palestinians, America's new regional order could not be achieved and Iran would evade prolonged isolation, Tehran calculated. Though Iran wasn't solely responsible for the collapse of the peace process, it did contribute to undermining it by supporting rejectionist Palestinian organizations at a time when the United States was at the height of its power and when Tehran was in a very weak position. Today the tables have turned. Iran is rising and the United States is mired in Iraq. Instead of repeating a policy that failed under the best circumstances, we must recognize that Iran's propensity to act as the spoiler will decline when it is included, not when it's excluded.

Iran poses a complicated challenge to America, but not an irresolvable one. Despite the tremendous distrust between the two countries, history shows that negotiations can work. In 2001 Tehran and Washington worked closely together to defeat the Taliban and install a new government in Afghanistan. Without Iranian help, the new Constitution of Afghanistan would not have been achieved, according to US diplomats involved in the effort.

Similar cooperation, but on a lower scale, took place before the invasion of Iraq. In 2003 Iran sent the United States a comprehensive negotiations package, only to be snubbed by the Bush Administration. Clearly, success in negotiations can never be guaranteed. But neither can failure. We will never know whether we can succeed in negotiating with Iran until we try. And so far, beyond isolated instances, the Administration has not given broad negotiations a fair chance, nor has the United States pursued a policy of inclusion and regional integration. (A policy of sanctions and confrontation, on the other hand, is a proven failure.)

While hawks are presenting a wide array of arguments as to why we shouldn't talk to Iran--including the notion that, given the quagmire in Iraq, the hand of the United States is now much weaker than it was several years ago, as well as the idea that Washington doesn't have anything to offer--only Washington can offer Tehran what it really seeks: decontainment and reintegration in the Middle East. Iran wants a seat at the table and a say as a legitimate player in all regional decision-making. Iran can make it costly for the United States not to recognize it as a regional power, but it cannot gain its seat at the table without American agreement. This is an extremely valuable carrot Washington can offer Tehran in return for momentous changes in Iranian behavior. In fact, unbeknownst to decision-makers in Washington, America holds an ace up its sleeve. But this ace can be used only in the context of real negotiations.

These negotiations cannot be limited to Iraq or to the nuclear issue alone. The problems between the United States and Iran go well beyond these two issues. There is an underlying geopolitical imbalance that must be addressed. The previous order in the region has crumbled as a result of America's defeat of the Taliban and its subsequent failure to establish a coherent order in Iraq. Even if the nuclear issue and the Iraq calamity were to be resolved, the context that has given meaning to these problems to begin with--the collapse of the previous order and the absence of an all-inclusive security arrangement--will remain unresolved. Any agreement with Iran that does not address this fundamental issue is doomed to be short-lived.

Creating a new regional order, in which the carrot of Iranian inclusion is used to secure radically different behavior from Tehran, is neither a concession to Iran nor a capitulation of American (or Israeli) interests. Rather, it is a recognition that stability in the region cannot be achieved and sustained through the current strategy of pursuing an order based on the exclusion of one of the region's most powerful nations. To change Iran's behavior, we must change our own.

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