On the Issues: Iran

By: 
Daniel Brumberg

Daniel Brumberg, acting director of USIP's Muslim World Initiative, discusses the recent meeting between senior U.S. officials and Iranian diplomats during an international conference at the Hague on March 31. This meeting represents the Obama administration's biggest step so far to reestablish dialogue with the Islamic Republic after 30 years of hostility.

Daniel BrumbergA senior U.S. official met with an Iranian diplomat during an international conference at the Hague on March 31, representing the Obama administration's biggest step so far to reestablish dialogue with the Islamic Republic after 30 years of hostility.

Daniel Brumberg, acting director of USIP's Muslim World Initiative in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, and author of "Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran," talks about this first meeting between the Iranian diplomat and senior official from the Obama administration.

 

 

What's your take on the latest developments, with the first face to face meeting between U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Iran's deputy foreign minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoondzadeh on Tuesday at an international conference on Afghanistan?

The Americans said it was short and cordial – and the two sides would be in touch. But the Iranians seem already to be denying the meeting ever happened. This points to how politically sensitive the issue is, especially in Iran.

So-- while it's still possible that that the discussion over Afghanistan may provide an arena for jumpstarting Iranian-U.S. negotiations, the apparent Iranian denial suggests how difficult the engagement process is.

The Iranians are very uneasy about having a dialogue on Afghanistan — or other countries, like Iraq — with the U.S. at this point.

Ultimately, the Iranians don't want to be dragged into a discussion with the U.S. about other countries. They have their eyes on the prize, which is direct discussions with the U.S. over bilateral issues, not about other countries.

So, they want to know what the bigger picture is for engaging with the U.S. because it's politically risky for Iranian leaders. It's also hard for the U.S., but less so.

Why is it politically risky for Iranian leaders?

It's risky because Iran's Islamic Revolution was in part established in opposition to American power. And to have a serious engagement means relinquishing part of that founding ideology. The U.S. also has constraints, such as how this will affect its relationship with Israel and Arab nations, as well as its own constituents. But, unlike in Iran, it's not part of our political identity.

What do you make of Iran's stated willingness to fight the drug trade in Afghanistan? Does that signal an area of mutual interest between the US and Iran? Or, do you think Iran has another motive?

No, not another motive. But the paradox is that after we toppled the Taliban in 2002 — the drug trade really took off and drugs poured into Iran. So, now, drugs are a huge problem in Iran. That's one potential area for cooperation.

But, here's the kicker: If the U.S. attempts to shut down the drug trade in Afghanistan, the U.S. could lose some of the local support it needs to fight the Taliban.

A second conundrum is that part of President Obama's strategy MAY involve engaging elements of the Taliban. And, the Iranians are very nervous about that.

Why?

Because the Taliban persecuted the Shiite minority in Afghanistan. And, Iran — with its predominantly Shiite population — has always been strategically opposed to the Taliban. For tactical purposes, there is some evidence that Iran has sometimes supported some elements of the Taliban to fight against the U.S. But overall, Iran is opposed to the Taliban.

So, again, that's a potential area of shared interest in supporting some elements of the Taliban?

Yes, but there's plenty of room here for misunderstandings and miscommunications, especially since the Iranian are concerned that a possible US engagement of elements of the Taliban might only strengthen their ranks.

But, most importantly, the bigger and overarching concern — the elephant in the room -- is the nuclear issue. The big strategic question is Iran's nuclear industry and its efforts to enrich uranium. If the U.S. and Iran can't come to see common ground on enrichment, then all these other areas for potential negotiations and cooperation will not work.

There won't be negotiations or real discussions until we ultimately confront the nuclear matter.

The US has to come to terms with its own bottom line on what it's willing to accept. This will be a huge issue: whether to stick with zero enrichment, or if we can envision any other enrichment regime that will be acceptable to the Iranians and its neighbors – including Israel and the Arab states. As Dan writes in his blog for the Washington Post:

"Washington is addressing such apprehensions in two ways. First, our top foreign policy officials, including Secretary of State Clinton, have tried to reassure Arab and Israeli leaders that the opening to Iran will not come at their expense. Second, we have assiduously avoided defining the strategic vision behind engagement. Tactics prevail because they make our diplomatic life a little easier (at least for the moment), and because we are not sure ourselves what the ultimate goal of engagement with Iran is."

Another question is the level of engagement we want to pursue now, as opposed to after the June elections.

You spoke earlier about areas of shared interests. What do you think of John W. Limbert's upcoming USIP book, "Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History," which builds off of his special report?

Extremely interesting.

It has two points. One is cultural, psychological. It involves the U.S. must address the symbolic concerns of Iranians and the biggest obstacles to improving relations are emotional or psychological, rather than concrete policy issues.

The other part of the book says there are real concrete policy matters with Iran, with places of convergence and divergence between the two countries. And, John recommends we focus on the areas of convergence.

In short, his book is about how to make the symbolic and concrete policy issues work together for the ultimate goal of improving U.S.-Iranian relations.

 

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of USIP, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

April 2, 2009
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