Monday, February 19, 2007

A New Diplomatic Strategy for Iran

I do not mind plainly stating my belief that an Iranian nuclear arsenal is unacceptable. Therefore, if all diplomatic and economic prevention measures prove unfeasible or ineffective, I believe that force should be used.

That being said, the United States has not even begun to exercise the level of diplomacy that I believe is required to make military action morally acceptable.

This is not to say we have done nothing on the diplomatic front. The U.S. has prodded the U.N. Security Council to address this issue since the earliest days of the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, the economic and political interests of China and Russia have prevented any effective measures from being taken.

Recognizing this, the Bush Administration partially shifted execution of diplomacy to a smaller group in 2003 - the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany). Unfortunately, the 3 have made virtually no progress since they initiated negotiations. This is almost certainly attributable, in part, to the underlying position of the French government which inadvertently admitted recently that it does not view an Iranian nuclear arsenal as a problem.

This leaves many to conclude that the best remaining option is bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran - something the Bush Administration has stubbornly rejected to date.

The United States must talk to Iran, but I believe that bilateral discussions would be both unfruitful and a strategic mistake. The level of trust between the U.S. and Iranian governments is virtually zero - which makes meaningful diplomacy almost impossible. In addition, bilateral discussions would further frame the standoff as one between the United States and Iran - which it is not.

The UN, Europe, Russia and China have been and will continue to be prominent players in any diplomatic initiative as they control most of the carrots and sticks that will serve as the basic tools of diplomacy. Nevertheless, a significant and potentially powerful group of stakeholders - Iran's neighbors in the Middle East - remain relatively unengaged.

An Iranian nuclear arsenal is directly counter to the interests of Iran's neighbors. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraq have nothing to gain from a nuclear Iran and potentially much to lose. It is easy to see why some of these nations might pursue their own weapons in response to an Iranian nuclear program. Doing so would safeguard both their physical security and their relative levels of regional political influence.

The United States has substantial influence with each of these countries and - in this particular case - aligned interests. Therefore, we should - in a very public manner - mobilize these governments into a coalition to address the standoff.

While this coalition would be free to initiate their own proposals that serve the end of preventing Iranian nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely, given their relative economic weakness, that their value or chief purpose would be compelling Iranian acquiescence. Rather, I believe such an initiative would have two very different benefits.

First, assuming high publicity, it would provide a credible counterweight to the rhetoric of the Iranian leadership. It would dramatically increase the likelihood that the other side of the debate would be heard by the Arab and Iranian populations. Iranian leaders would then have much less success portraying the diplomacy as Americans or Westerners attempting to deny them their valid sovereign right to peaceful nuclear power. Just as the Iranian President is trying to divide the U.N. Security Council, so should we attempt to divide him from his people and his neighbors' populations.

Second, the group would serve as an intermediary between the U.S. (and any other genuinely engaged partners) and Iran - thereby addressing the lack of trust between the two nations. It would be a forum in which bilateral talks could occur and a mutually agreeable deal (assuming one is possible) could be structured.

Of course, it is entirely possible that this course of action could fail. I do not present it as a silver bullet method for determining Iranian intentions or obtaining their compliance with respect to uranium enrichment or U.N. inspections. However, even if unsuccessful, it would provide our best option to rally Middle Eastern public opinion around our perspective by making our true intentions heard.

It is time that the United States recognize the paramount importance of winning the war of ideas and information. Although I stand by my advocacy of force as a last resort, American leaders must acknowledge that force will only delay weapons development and likely make the Iranian leadership - and more importantly, the Iranian people - want nuclear weapons even more....


Unknown said...

As long as we depend on oil from the likes of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, we hold little leverage against them; they hold it over us. So while I agree that they are probably also not too keen on a nuclear Iran, I am not sure how much we can nudge them into doing things that they otherwise might not. I hope we can, though, because I think you're absolutely right about the need to have them involved. We needed China to have a shot at sanity in North Korea, and we can't do this one alone, either.

And we will never be anything close to safe from fundamentalist Muslim extremism as long as we are the unflinching, eternal bodyguards of a boorish nuclear Israel.

Jared said...

Our oil dependency does indeed place limits on the power we can exert. Ironically, it also a source of (political) power. (The others are the military protection and direct economic aid we provide to some of these governments e.g. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait).

Because we are far and away the largest consumers of oil, we actually have it within our power in the medium and long term to decrease the global price and hammer their profits. Particularly because their economies are so one-dimensional, this gives us substantial power.

For instance, I bet the Saudis would be willing to listen to our suggestions on this matter if we agreed not to legislate increased fuel standards in automobiles or levy a carbon tax for X years. (I am not necessarily advocating such a deal - just providing an example of how our oil consumption is both an asset AND a liability).

Bryan said...

I agree with your comments Jared. We can use our incredible purchasing power as leverage. We also need to keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni while Iran is Shia. Saudia Arabia doesn't want a Shia state gaining too much power or control. I think your ideas are sound and worth a shot. We must broaden our diplomatic efforts. I think we are starting to see some of the fruits of the multilateral talks with N. Korea. Let's see if we can do the same with Iran. As far as Israel is concerned, I think they have shown restraint in the face of constant antagonism from Hesbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria. I think Israel has demonstrated their ability to be a responsible nuclear power. I'm not sure Iran would act as responsibly if they were to acquire nuclear weapons.

Jared said...

In so much as is possible, I think it is important to keep Israel out of the discussion of Iran's nuclear weapons program. (I say that as a comment on negotiation strategy - not to discourage comments here)

Admittedly, to totally do so is a foolish quest, because it is impossible - however, diplomacy led by the regional Mid East powers would have the best shot at doing this. They are the only ones that could credibly (from the perspective of the Arab and Iranian populations) say that the Iranian nuclear ambition is a distinct issue from Israel's weapons(as the UN has affirmed).

A common tactic in disputes in the Middle East is to deflect attention to complaints about Israel. At times, I think the points raised about Israel's conduct have much validity. In any case, the ability to use that tactic would be minimized with this strategy.

Iran's President has gone to extreme lengths recently to incite anger among his population and the world against Israel. His stated belief that israel should be "wiped off the map" and his recent 'conference' promoting Holocaust denial are just two examples. We need to address this tactic head-on (Discussing how to do this could be the sole focus of this blog for months to come...)

Bryan said...

I agree Jared. I just think someone will eventually drag Israel into the discussion. I admit that Israel is a lightning rod. I think your ideas need to be adopted ASAP. Now that the Brits have set a timeline for withdrawl there will be alot of talk about us quickly following suit. We need to get these discussions going while we have a strong military presence in the region. And any diplomatic successes we experience can only help our military objectives.

Unknown said...

Israel has been a responsible nuclear power in the sense that they haven't blown anyone up or threatened to, but they don't entirely play nice when it comes to the nuclear club. They refuse to confirm or deny whether they have nuclear weapons, even though it is widely believed that they do. They are not signatories to the NPT.

How will we justify--at least to the Muslim world, if not to ourselves--looking the other way with Israel but coming down hard on Iran? "Iran is run by crazy people" might not cut it.

Bryan said...

I don't believe Israel can confirm or deny their nuclear weapons arsenal. If they confirm their nukes then the entire middle east will erupt into a nuclear arms race. If they deny their nukes then they will be inviting attack. I think their current strategy actually enhances regional stability. If we (The U.S.) could get Israel's neighbors to agree to Israel's right to exist then we could start the process of unveiling Israel as a nuclear power. I just don't think Israel is going to disclose any capabilities unless they feel they have negotiating partners they can trust. One distinction between Israel and Iran is their rhetoric. Israel has not stated that they want to wipe Iran off the face of the earth. The Muslim countries must adjust their attitude and approach to Israel. If their only conditions for peace are for Israel to give up its land and convert to Islam then there will always be strife in the region.

Unknown said...

If their only conditions for peace are for Israel to give up its land and convert to Islam then there will always be strife in the region.

This is more or less the way the region has been going for the last ~5000 years. The names change, but the basic plot doesn't.

I am very pessimistic that we can make serious progress in fixing the Middle East any time soon. I would like to see us (i.e., the United States) disentangle ourselves and wash our hands of their problems. Wean ourselves off their oil, and work on distancing ourselves from Israel.

Jared said...

I tend to think that we should remain an ally of Israel - even going so far as to help them defend their UN recognized borders.

However, beyond this basic securtiy alliance, we must be more objective. We are entirely too one-sided in our support of Israel and this damages our credibility around the world.

For example, it in no way harms the security of Israel, nor condones the use of terrorism, for us to publicly acknowledge the illegality of some of their settlements in the Palestinian territories. Therefore, we should speak the truth. I would even go so far as to say that we should use our financial leverage over them to get them to address the issue ( I think Bush Sr. actually did this when he was President).

Unknown said...

I tend to think that we should remain an ally of Israel - even going so far as to help them defend their UN recognized borders.

I'm not suggesting abandoning Israel, but our absolutely unwavering devotion to them, and their rather disproportionate influence on our political leaders, is causing us harm. All I want is for us not to defend their behavior or look the other way 100% of the time.

Here's a hypothetical scenario (and a bit of an unrealistic one, but hey...). I am not yet sure what my own answer to it is, so any appearance of bias is unintentional. Suppose that you, President Jared, could end terrorism against the United States on the part of Muslim extremists by cutting Israel loose; you leave them to fend for themselves, even in the case of an all-out war with their neighbors. Would you do it?

Jared said...

If by cutting them loose you mean totally severing relations or defensive military assitance (i.e. help in event of an unprovoked invasion), no.

If you mean stopping favored treatment - i.e. dealing with them, their neighbors and their disputes in a genuinely objective, honorable way - yes.

We should do that anyway, even if it will not impact terrorist activity. I do not at all believe that doing either would stop all terrorism - though I do believe that it would help the cause.

Bryan said...

I think we (the U.S.) have tried to be an objective party on many occasions. The Clinton Administration lead Israel into some major concessions to the PLO. The problem was the PLO didn't genuinely want peace. This has happend repeatedly. The settlements may be illegal, but so is the terrorist activity that builds up in the settlements when they are given back. I don't see any of Israel's foes as victims any more than I see Israel as a victim. Sadly, the Palestian people are suffering while their leaders are squabling instead of leading. Israel isn't blameless, however, I think Israel has demonstrated a more sincere willingness to negotiate and make concessions.

One of the reasons we have a hard time understanding mideast conflicts is because we are a secular country. Many of us in the west compartmentalize our faith (if we have faith) when we address worldly issues. We therefore have a hard time understanding the mideast mindset. We must not minimize the role of their religious belief in our efforts to influence that region. We are comfortable thinking through problems from a socio/economic standpoint, however, seeing these conflicts from a religous standpoint is a must. Ideally, these societies would see the value of a secular society where faith can be freely practiced instead of a theocracy. However, what we face today in much of the mideast,and all of modern terrorism, is a worldview that doesn't want to coexist with a westernized secular worldview. Believe it or not, Israel has more of a secularized worldview than any of their neighbors.

With regards to Steve's comments, I'm all in favor of weening ourselves from oil and detangling ourselves from the region. However, I don't think detangling means abandoning Israel. Guys, Israel is always going to be at odds with someone. If we took their land they would have to be moved elsewhere or absorbed into another society. They have been through these scenarios many times before and have always been persecuted. I think their foes are going to have to have a change of heart before any permanent peace can be found.

I love the blog Jared. I really enjoy learning from you and Steve.

Take care, Bryan

Unknown said...

There is a key difference between Israel and "the PLO" or "the Palestinians." Israel has, and has had for some time, a democratically elected government, with all the governmental infrastructure and influence that comes with that. The degree to which the PLO represents or has ever represented the wishes of the Palestinian people is less clear; the Palestinians do not have their own state. So even if it's true that "the PLO didn't want peace," I'm not sure that that translates to "the Palestinian people didn't want peace."

I am not in favor of tossing Israel to the wolves, either. But we are too far to the side of Israel, and it is hurting us. Most importantly, though, we will have much greater power to wield effective influence over the region when we are not beholden to its oil exports (and when we have a better President...).