After 30 years of estrangement, the Obama administration is now engaged with Iran in hopes of a deal to ensure Iran’s nuclear energy program is not subverted to make nuclear weapons. On December 1, 2010, Iran experts explored important trends inside Iran and in its dealings with the outside world at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s launch of “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and U.S. Policy.”

After 30 years of estrangement, the Obama administration is now engaged with Iran in hopes of a deal to ensure Iran’s nuclear energy program is not subverted to make nuclear weapons. On December 1, 2010, Iran experts explored important trends inside Iran and in its dealings with the outside world at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s launch of “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and U.S. Policy.”

Iran has an opportunity and I hope it will take that opportunity,” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, Special Assistant to the President, in his keynote speech. The Islamic Republic has become one of the world’s most complex challenges because of its controversial nuclear program, violent repression, support of extremists, and inflammatory rhetoric. Ross noted that growing pressure from international sanctions has added incentive for Iran to negotiate with the world’s six major powers. He warned, however, that “if Iran stays on the path it is on, then it should be ready to a pay a price.”

Robin Wright, editor of “The Iran Primer,” noted that “talks are coming at a time of unprecedented internal divisions.” Tensions are visible within the hardline regime, among the original revolutionaries, in parliament, even inside the Revolutionary Guards, as well as from the new Green Movement opposition. Pressures are likely to mount further because Iran’s population is overwhelmingly young and pessimistic about their own futures. Corruption and chronic economic mismanagement have added to public dissatisfaction. The danger for diplomacy is that Iran’s internal crises will make any diplomatic deal more difficult too—launching an open-ended game of “diplomatic dodge-ball” that does not resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Wright is a joint fellow at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Wright’s skepticism was echoed throughout the conference. “More people realize the system is unlikely to reform itself…The likelihood of a diplomatic breakthrough is very slim,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Susanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, expressed doubt about the seriousness of Iranian cooperation because “any sort of opening poses a threat to those ruling the regime.”

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, suggested that even a deal on Iran’s nuclear program would not end diplomatic tensions or punitive sanctions. “If we resolve the nuclear issue, we would still retain sanctions due to [Iran’s] terrorism links,” Clawson said. And Tehran is unlikely to stop support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Despite the overwhelming pessimism about negotiations, James Dobbins emphasized the importance of the administration’s decision to engage Iran. “I don’t suggest it will lead to a grand negotiation or deal, but it will produce better information and better information will produce better policy,” said Dobbins, director of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy. Dobbins urged the United States to communicate with all Iranian leaders open to American diplomacy.

Kenneth Pollack expressed support for diplomacy due to a lack of viable alternatives. Yet Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, emphasized the need for a fall-back plan based on containment to prevent the regime from doing harm beyond its borders. “Containment sucks. It is what we do when we can’t have a normal relationship with the government and we can’t change the government.” He said the United States should prepare for long-term sustainable sanctions as well as bolster U.S. regional allies, in addition to engaging in diplomacy. “There needs to be a sense of the long struggle and that the U.S. will not back down,” Pollack said.

The panelists generally agreed that the costs of the military option outweigh the benefits. “The politics of a military attack are more critical than an attack itself,” said Dov S. Zakheim, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Zakheim said that even a prolonged period of strikes might not be effective based on Iran’s size as the world’s 18th largest country, the limited U.S. intelligence inside Iran, and divisions within the international community in addition to the human consequences of a military offensive.

The event ended with a general consensus that if Iran is not serious about cooperation, then the United States may have no other better option than long-term containment policy, which Pollack called “the least bad option.” 

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