Time for a U-Turn in US's Iran Policy

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

What is the US policy on Iran today? This simple question lacks a meaningful response and, unfortunately, there is little prospect for any improvement other than the usual "muddling through" by the lame-duck George W Bush administration.

By all indication, the seams around the US Iran policy are foundering, turning a once coherent, albeit one-dimensional and even unrealistic, coercive policy of containment into a hodge-podge, with worrying signs of incoherence, ambivalence, wait and see attitude intermixed with half-hearted half steps dominating the scene, lacking any sound framework to work with. In a word, the US's Iran policy is on the verge of becoming a non-policy.

On the surface, however, there are not that many overt signs of trouble: the US is officially committed to "isolating" Iran, curbing its nuclear ambitions, punishing it for its sponsorship of terrorism and the like, preparing for the next round of UN sanctions in light of Iran's defiance of UN Security Council resolutions demanding a suspension of uranium enrichment activities. Yet, increasingly, like a call in the wilderness, the US is discovering the gaping holes in its Iran policy that are simply growing larger and larger, for several reasons.

First, it is now self-evident that the US's diplomatic efforts to isolate Iran have not been successful, particularly in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, a volatile region unwilling to subscribe to the US-Israeli cold war blueprint of alliance formation vis-a-vis Iran. Thus, while Iran and Egypt are making steady progress to set their alienated relations on normal tracks, on the other hand the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have gone even further by rejecting the US's bid to isolate Iran, showing a remarkable new willingness to establish close relations with their non-Arab neighbor.

Second, the US is increasingly troubled by the rapid warming up of Iran-Russia relations and Moscow's bold new Iran policy, reflected in President Vladimir Putin's recent Tehran visit followed by Russia's delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran and the reports of more nuclear and non-nuclear, eg, armed, contacts between the two countries. Already, in light of the new US intelligence report on Iran confirming the absence of a nuclear weapons program in today's Iran, Russia has gone on record opposing any further sanctions against Tehran, a sentiment shared by, among others, China, which has proceeded with new energy deals with Iran, thus guaranteeing China's role as a top trading partner with Iran.

Third, after much hesitation and internal bickering, the US has finally conceded that Iran is being constructive in Iraq, and the fourth round of US-Iran dialogue on Iraq's security scheduled for later this month can be the occasion for US diplomats to go beyond their ritual accusations against Iran and to seek a mini-breakthrough via proactive suggestions.

Fourth, the turmoil in Pakistan must serve a stern notice to US policy makers that fiddling around with Iran's security environment is not wise and the overflowing threats to regional stability together with Iran's stability role and good relations with all of its neighbors translate into a much revised US policy that is not anchored in Iran-bashing.

Fifth, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has sent a signal that while the time is not right to normalize relations with the US, nonetheless Iran is prepared to work in that direction if the US changes its behavior toward Iran. Khamenei's statement must be understood, however, against a backdrop of a long history of broken promises and contradictory US policies that have more than once demoralized the forces in Iran's top hierarchy willing to give rapprochement with the US a decent chance.

The question is: Is it different now, or are we apt to see more of the same, that is, the repetition or recycling of a long-standing pattern of incremental improvements reversed by setbacks, partially caused by various backlashes against those improvements?

Another question, of course, pertains to the "limits of the possible" in the way of US-Iran relations, experiencing three decades of diplomatic estrangement. The US's Iran containment policy may need to be recast, perhaps along the lines similar to, let's say, China or Russia containment and, in turn, this would mean normal relations coinciding with power and ideological competition. In other words, there is no need to anticipate full harmony as a prerequisite for normalization, rather a coming to a new understanding by both sides of how to regulate their disagreements.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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