How to Talk to Iran


When President Bush assumed office, Iran was not a
nuclear power. When his successor takes the oath of office next year, however, Iran
will have achieved (or be on the verge of achieving) that status. Nothing the
Bush Administration or the international community is doing now is likely to
alter Iran's
behavior over the coming year. Indeed, so long as the sanctions adopted by the
UN Security Council don't directly affect the Iranian economy, Iranian leaders
won't have to make a choice between their economic well-being and their nuclear
development and will thus proceed on the path to completing the nuclear fuel

Senators Clinton, McCain, or Obama all know that the current
policy is not going to prevent Iran
from acquiring nuclear weapons. So if they are to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran once
becoming president--something all have committed themselves to trying to assure--they
are going to have to change course, and direct engagement with the Iranians
will be the likely result. Either Clinton or Obama will likely try negotiations
as a primary strategy in order to see if there is a way through incentives and
disincentives to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Even McCain knows that there
is no way he can employ force to set back the Iranian nuclear program without
showing the American public (and the world) that he genuinely tried direct
negotiations to resolve the issue first.

In order to launch such negotiations, the next president will
need to drop the Bush precondition that Iran must first suspend its uranium
enrichment. But since there is a danger that Iran will see this as an admission
of defeat in which America will concede everything sooner or later, the next
president must succeed in increasing economic pressures at the same time. To do
so, and thus prime the ground for negotiations, America
must convince its European allies to adjust their policies as well as strategically
influence less friendly powers like China
and Russia
to fall in line.


America's readiness
to talk to Iran without conditions provides leverage with those who want it
to join the negotiations with the Iranians. In particular, the Europeans have
been convinced, rightly or wrongly, that a deal with the Iranians on the
nuclear issue is possible, but only if the United States is also at the table. It
is the United States, they believe, that can provide what the Iranians most
want in terms of full acceptance of the regime, security assurances, and an end
to sanctions and calls for economic boycotts. Given this view, the next
administration must go quietly to the British, French and Germans and make
clear that while it is ready to drop the precondition on Iranian suspension of
enrichment, join the talks directly, and put a credible comprehensive proposal
on the table, it cannot do so until they agree to ratchet up the pressure on Iran at the
same time. Europeans would thus need to agree on E.U.–wide sanctions that cut off
investment in the Iranian oil and natural gas sectors, commerce with Iranian
banks, and all credit guarantees to their companies doing business in Iran.

Many Europeans would find this difficult to do, especially
given concerns that the Chinese and Russians would simply take their place in Iran. That
argues not for relaxing what the next administration asks of the EU, but for also
doing parallel preparation with the Chinese, Russians, and Saudis prior to
entering negotiations with the Iranians.

The next administration will need to convince the Chinese
that as America
contemplates direct talks with the Iranians, they must not undercut those
negotiations by removing the leverage that could make them succeed. Indeed, if
the Chinese want to ensure that force is not the only option left to stop the
Iranian nuclear program, they must not undercut the sanctions. The Saudis could
be very important in this connection: They don’t want to face an Iran that has a nuclear shield behind which it
can engage in coercion and subversion, so America should try to convince them
to use their enormous financial clout with the Chinese.

The Russians may be reluctant to restrain their relations Iran given their interests in becoming an
alternative to the United States
in the Middle East and elsewhere. Still, the
Russians also have strong financial interests in being a supplier of nuclear
reactors and fuel elsewhere in the global market--and the next U.S. administration
could facilitate that objective. Moreover, it also has something to trade with
the Russians. While the Bush Administration has made developing and deploying U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic a top priority, the
next president could use these potential outposts as a bargaining chip with the
Russians. After all, the Bush administration’s main argument justifying the
deployment of these ballistic missile defenses in Eastern
Europe is the threat posed by Iranian missiles armed with nuclear
weapons. If that Iranian threat goes away, so does the principal need to deploy
these forces. Putin has made this such a symbolic issue that this tradeoff
could be portrayed as a great victory for him. To gain the victory, Russia must join real economic sanctions against
and its energy sector.


All this suggests
that there is leverage that could be used to make negotiations effective. Negotiations
with Iran
don’t exist in a vacuum. Iran must see what it can gain from the talks (civil
nuclear power, economic benefits, security assurances, and regional acceptance)
but also what it must give up (nuclear weapons, the use of terror and
subversion, material support for the Hezbollah and the Hamas militias, and opposition
to peace with Israel) in order to get it. If there is no pressure, Iran
will read negotiations as acquiescence. Laying extensive groundwork for the
almost inevitable negotiations that lay ahead with Iran
may not guarantee success, particularly if Iran is determined to have nuclear
weapons. But the preparation will give the next American president his or her best
chance of stopping Iran's
drive towards nuclear armament.

Dennis Ross is counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow
at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World.

By Dennis Ross

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