Iran's Nuclear Diplomacy

On Monday at The Nixon Center, two Iran watchers gave their thoughts on Washington’s policy, discussed Tehran’s intentions, touched on the prospects for democracy in Iran and speculated on the possible consequences of war in the Gulf.

At "Iran's Nuclear Program: Diplomacy, Deterrence, or Force?", which took place at the Nixon Center on Monday, discussants tried to shed some light on the enigma that has been Tehran's foreign policy, while also pointing out the positives and negatives of Washington's approach to the problem.

In the second panel of the day, which focused on the prospects for successful negotiation with Tehran, two Iran watchers-Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution and Barbara Slavin of the United States Institute of Peace-gave decidedly mixed assessments of the situation on the ground. The Nixon Center's Geoffrey Kemp, Director of Regional Strategic Programs, served as moderator.

Slavin, on leave as senior diplomatic reporter at USA Today, started off her initial remarks by flatly stating that "war would be a disaster" for the United States. Predicting dire consequences in Iraq and Pakistan, she said that bombing Iran would damage already-strained oil markets and set back political reform in Tehran for "perhaps another generation." Of course, it would also damage U.S. credibility in the Muslim world.

On the other hand, Slavin argued that "ample time" remains to pursue the diplomatic option, citing internal political developments within Iran. She also said that financial sanctions against Tehran "are working" and that domestic criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is increasing, partly due to what she called his "amplification" of those measures through incompetent economic stewardship. Inflation and unemployment are on the rise as foreign investment decreases; European trade with Iran is down by 30 percent and companies are putting plans to develop Iranian oil "on hold."

Saying that recent elections in Iran have yielded success for reformers and "pragmatic conservatives", while also handing defeat to Ahmadinejad's radical allies, Slavin predicted that upcoming parliamentary elections could possibly serve as a "rebuff" to the controversial president. If that happens, Slavin said, the United States would be in a position to extend a new offer to Tehran, essentially trading acceptance of a limited indigenous nuclear enrichment capacity for tough monitoring rights.

Slavin closed her remarks by recommending steps Washington could take to move toward understanding with Tehran. Among them: "explicity recognize the Iranian government", make direct overtures toward the Supreme Leader himself and reaffirm a 1981 pledge not to interfere in Iranian's domestic politics.

Maloney, a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department from 2005 to 2007, then shared her own appraisal of the situation. She praised the Bush Administration for crafting a post-2005 Iran policy that deals with "all arms of the Iran problem", which include the regime's ties to terrorism, the Israel-Palestine peace process and of course the nuclear issue. Furthermore, she said, there has been "unprecedented" European-U.S. cooperation. Nevertheless, there's been no major change in Tehran's behavior since Washington adopted this comprehensive strategy. On the contrary, Maloney said, Iran's stance has "hardened."

Maloney proceeded to give a number of reasons for this failure of U.S. policy. First was the inconsistency of the Administration's approach: In the early days of the Administration, the White House operated on the assumption that the Islamic Republic was on the verge of collapse, leading Tehran to believe that the American objective was "regime change." The gradual softening of the U.S. position, especially since President Bush's second term, has signaled to Iranian leadership that its toughness has yielded results. Maloney also spoke of Tehran's belief in nuclear weapons as the "ultimate deterrent capability"-one it was loath to give up.

Another factor impeding progress on the nuclear issue, said Maloney, is the "disconnect" between Russia, China and the United States, all of whom have a differing "sense of urgency." Strong cooperation from European allies on financial curbs has been valuable, but their effect has been muted by the fact that Iran can now do business with growing economic powers like India and China. Furthermore, a lack of information on Iranian internal affairs makes it "very unclear" how this financial pressure is actually affecting Iran's economy.

Moving to internal Iranian politics, Maloney spoke of a lack of significant debate within the country over issues like Tehran's international standing or the nuclear program. Instead, she said, President Ahmadinejad's disastrous economic policy has been front and center, with his questionable use of public funds at the center of the storm. This gap between internal politics and the global perception of the Islamic Republic only underscores the difficulty of crafting Iran policy, which Maloney said relied on "splintering a regime that we know very little about."

During the question and answer session, the panelists were asked to speculate on what the regime's response to American military action against Iran would be. Slavin cited conversations with Iranian officials, saying that "they will respond through their proxies" in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and possibly the Gulf States. She added that countering these "many levers" of Iranian power would be exceedingly difficult for the United States.