John Burroughs

The most important step in the current U.S./Iran crisis is for the two sides to talk. Senator Lugar and others agree. It sounds doable, right? But the reality is that the United States and Iran have not been talking in any in-depth, sustained way since the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis. In the negotiations between the E3 (Britain, France, Germany) and Iran in 2004-2005, the United States was on the sidelines. It was hailed as a breakthrough when Secretary of State Rice just approved those negotiations. But the United States was not there to engage on its priority issues — Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Iranian policy towards Israel, human rights — nor on priority issues for Iran — its uranium enrichment program, an end to existing U.S. sanctions, security assurances. The Bush administration did, however, exact a price for its backing of the negotiations that virtually assured their failure — that Iran would not be permitted to engage in any uranium-enrichment related activities whatever in the foreseeable future.

In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now following up on his New Yorker article, Seymour Hersh made the point about the failure to talk vividly:

What’s amazing, Amy, about this is this, and what always surprises me about my country is, here we have a president that doesn’t talk to people he disagrees with. And anybody who’s been around little boys, big boys, knows that when they get out of control, you grab them. If you’re a nursery school teacher, you grab the little four-year-olds by the scruff of the neck, and you pull them together, and you say, ‘You two guys, shake hands and make up, and go play in the sandbox.’

Bush doesn’t talk to people he’s mad at. He doesn’t talk to the North Koreans. He didn’t talk to the insurgency. When the history is done, there were incredible efforts by the insurgency leaders in the summer of 2003. I’m talking about the Iraqi insurgency, the former Sunni generals and Sunni and Baathist leaders who were happy to see Saddam go, but did not want America there. They wanted to talk to us. Bush wouldn’t. Whether it got to Bush, I don’t know, it got in to four stars. Nobody wanted to talk to them. He doesn’t talk to the president of Syria; in fact, specifically rejects overtures from al-Asad to us. And he doesn’t talk to the Iranians. There’s been no bilateral communication at all.

Iran has come hat-in-hand to us. A former National Security Council adviser who worked in the White House, Flynt Leverett, an ex-C.I.A. analyst who’s now working at Brookings, wrote a piece a month or so ago, maybe six weeks ago, in the New York Times, describing specific offers by the Iranians to come and ‘let’s deal.’ Let’s deal on all issues. I’m even told they were willing to talk about recognizing Israel. And the White House doesn’t talk. And it’s not that he doesn’t talk, it’s that nobody pressures him to talk. There’s no pressure from the media, no pressure from Congress. Here’s a president who won’t talk to people he’s walking us into a confrontation with.

With other NGOs, Michael Spies and I, on behalf of Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, have been meeting with diplomats from the countries on the Security Council and other key countries. We’re picking up indications that there’s a desire to get the United States and Iran talking. There’s also a feeling that the E3, who are nursing grievances over what they regard as Iranian misbehavior during the negotiations, need to get over it and find a way to engage both Iran and the United States.

Let’s say that the United States and Iran did talk, either bilaterally or in a wider setting, for example in the context of a proposal Britain would like to see put forward by the E3 plus Russia, China, and the United States. Are the issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program capable of resolution? It certainly seems possible, assuming the United States is willing to drop the posture of simply delivering to Iran the ultimatum that it must cease all enrichment-related activities. It should be stipulated that this all would have been much easier before Ahmadinejad came into office. He continues to stoke the fires of confrontation.

Nonetheless, the outlines of a compromise were visible when Russia floated the possibility that an industrial-scale enrichment facility in Russia could be combined with small-scale enrichment activities in Iran. At a March 29 forum hosted by the Ralph Bunche Institute at the City University of New York (for which I was a discussant), Iran’s UN ambassador Javad Zarif, former chief negotiator in the E3/Iran negotiations, said that would be acceptable to Iran. ElBaradei indicated something like this approach is workable. But the proposal was shot down by the Bush administration before it could really be explored.

Zarif himself noted in a NY Times op-ed that in the talks with the E3 Iran proposed elements of a deal going well beyond what is in place for other non-weapon countries that have enrichment or reprocessing facilities (Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Brazil), among them:

Permit the continuous on-site presence of atomic agency inspectors at the conversion and enrichment facilities;

Immediately convert all enriched uranium to fuel rods, thereby precluding the possibility of further enrichment;

Begin putting in place the least contentious aspects of the enrichment program–like research and development–in order to assure the world of our intentions;

Accept foreign partners, both public and private, in our uranium enrichment program.

See Iran’s March 23, 2005 proposal to the E3 reflecting this approach. In hindsight, it is truly regrettable that the proposal was not seized upon as a starting point for an agreement before Ahmadinejad came in and political passions heated up. Zarif even then would have had a hard time selling the proposal to Tehran had the E3/US accepted it in some form.

Why would the Bush administration not accept a deal subjecting a limited Iranian enrichment program to heightened IAEA supervision? To its credit, the administration has clearly realized that the spread of reprocessing and enrichment facilities beyond the dozen or so countries now possessing them — far more than just the spread of nuclear reactors — creates the potential for spread of nuclear weapons arsenals. (Its general solution — basically deny the technology to additional countries by fiat in the G8 and the Nuclear Suppliers Group — is highly problematic, but that’s another subject.) A country which has learned to enrich uranium for reactor fuel could later defy or withdraw from the IAEA/NPT and make weapons. Some argue too that clandestine enrichment could be conducted parallel to monitored activities.

However, it has gotten a little late in the Iran case (it would have been helpful if the United States had been dealing with Iran over the past couple of decades instead of, for example, supporting Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s). Indeed, before the 1979 revolution, as Dafna Linzer reported, the United States not only supported the Shah’s very ambitious program for construction of nuclear reactors but also offered to assist with construction of a reprocessing facility in Iran! At this point, the best course for the United States, E3 and other concerned countries would seem to be 1) to have the IAEA hold Iranian nuclear program very close (is it more likely that weapons development will proceed in the presence or absence of IAEA?!), 2) deemphasize the importance of the nuclear program (perversely, Western hostility towards Iran’s nuclear aspirations has only served to reinforce them), 3) and create incentives, like a guaranteed fuel supply, for Iran to quietly drop or minimize development of the extremely expensive and problematic enrichment technology.

However, rational consideration of a workable solution is impeded by what Professor Evand Abrahamian calls the “symbiotic relationship of mutual paranoia.” In particular, rational consideration is impeded by the U.S. policy of regime change in a country that in an act of monumental stupidity (perhaps just a speechwriter’s artifice to boot) was named a member of the “axis of evil” at the very time when cooperation on Afghanistan and Al Qaeda laid the basis for progress. All of this is exacerbated by the messianic and belligerent tone taken by the two leaders. To start changing the relationship, there must be dialogue. There’s plenty of time — it’s doubtful, and there’s little evidence, that Iran has made a firm decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Further, it’s many years away from having the enrichment capability to build a arsenal of deliverable weapons comparable to the existing nuclear-armed states (the sort of arsenal an aspiring regional power might want), and three to five or so years from having the enrichment capability to build a handful.

If there is no solution reached through negotiations, where are we headed? It looks like stalemate ahead in the Security Council. Russia and China were very reluctant to agree to a non-binding presidential statement calling on Iran to cease enrichment activities. It may not be possible for the E3 and the United States to persuade them and the Council to issue a binding resolution to the same effect. Sanctions imposed by the Council look quite unlikely, and authorization of military action is out of the question.

If the Council gets stuck, I can see two paths ahead (absent negotiations). In Path One, the United States and the E3 will enlist countries to join in a sanctions regime not authorized by the UN or any other international body. (Someday countries’ ability to impose sanctions not backed by an international body will be suspect as a matter of international law, but it is now tended to be seen as within states’ discretion.) The United States will pursue its policy of isolating Iran and promoting regime change through media efforts, support for civil society and opposition groups, and probably covert action aimed at the nuclear program and stimulating ethnic conflict. None of this is likely to persuade Iran to give up its enrichment program, and voices in Iran calling for withdrawal from the NPT and pursuit of nuclear weapons, not just enrichment capability, will be strengthened. So Path One is not an attractive prospect.

Path Two could be taken at any time, but might not be seriously considered until after Path One had been tried for some time. It would start with a U.S. attack on Iran, with at least some of the horrendous consequences — certainly including further undermining of international law and institutions — that many have outlined, most recently Richard Clarke and Steven Simon. It would have unpredictable bad consequences as well.

This look at the future leads back once again to the point: let’s talk. As Lugar indicated, a cooling down period would be a good place to start.