Decommission Recommendations on Iran

December 7, 2006 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East

Decommission Recommendations on Iran

The much-anticipated Baker-Hamilton commission demonstrates glaring ignorance on Iran and broadly represents a missed opportunity.

As a realist I had hoped for bold and insightful recommendations from the Iraq Study Group on how to garner Iran's support in resolving America's Middle East quagmire. But I was sorely disappointed because what emerged is a naive approach burdened by the usual baggage and rhetoric.

Successful diplomacy and negotiation with Iran quite naturally depends on an intelligent assessment of the incentives Washington can offer it. The ISG lists six incentives the United States can offer Iran and Syria, in exchange for cooperation: an Iraq that does not disintegrate; America's prevention of a Taliban destabilization of Afghanistan; accession to international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization; prospects for enhanced diplomatic relations with the United States; the prospect of a U.S. policy that advocates reform and not regime change; the prospect of peace between Israel and Syria, and in turn a wider Middle East peace.

The length of the ISG's incentives list does not compensate for its lack of substance. The first two benefits are arguably more important for the United States. If Iraq and Afghanistan fall apart, America may be forced to depart from the entire region, leaving it with no bases in the Persian Gulf. Many of Washington's unpopular allies in the Persian Gulf would fall, leaving the United States unable to influence the oil and gas market. Iran would prefer this scenario to cooperating with the United States and then having hostile U.S. forces encircle it on all sides. Iran was helpful to the United States in Afghanistan, yet it got nothing in return and was instead named a founding member of the "axis of evil." Iran will be more cautious this time around.

The third benefit is not really that of joining international organizations but rather just the WTO. And Iran, while it is lobbying for WTO membership, is not ready to join the organization because it will need years of internal economic reforms and viable institutions before it could benefit from accession to the WTO. Incentives number four and five will be seen in Tehran as couched U.S. arrogance and threats. And number six is a benefit for Syria. So the question remains: where is the benefit in these so-called incentives for Iran?

How did the much-vaulted ISG, after months of deliberation and consultation, arrive at such hollow recommendations to garner Iranian support-incentives that if anything are harmful to U.S.-Iranian relations? Part of the problem-which I broached in "Opinionated and Dangerous", available here- is that Washington knows very little about the Iran of today. U.S. policymakers have not officially visited Iran for over twenty-five years. U.S. Iran "experts" generally do not visit Iran and those that do have little or no contact with Iranian leaders. Among the more than two hundred individuals who were approached by the ISG, only one, namely, Dr. Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, knows anything about today's Iran. And although Dr. Zarif is eloquent, one meeting with him can hardly suffice in educating the ISG about all the ins and outs of today's Iran. 

The ISG also recommends that Iran become a member of an International Support Group, which is to include Iraq and all the states bordering Iraq, including Iran and Syria; the key regional states, including Egypt and the Gulf States; the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council; the European Union; and of course, Iraq itself. This support group is meant to play a pivotal diplomatic role. "Other countries-for instance, Germany, Japan and South Korea-that might be willing to contribute to resolving political, diplomatic, and security problems affecting Iraq could also become members."

The study group's inclusion of Egypt demonstrates its unfortunate ignorance of Iran. After the First Gulf War, the Bush I Administration proposed a security arrangement for the Persian Gulf that included Egypt but excluded Iran. Iran was baffled and suspicious about why Egypt, a nation outside the region and hostile toward Iran, was on that list. Of course that Persian Gulf security arrangement did not get off the ground. Yet the ISG resurrects an Egyptian role. While the ISG presumably seeks Iran's cooperation, it is clumsily and needlessly alienating and antagonizing it.

The ISG highlights Iran's potential role in drawing on its historical relationship with the different Shi‘a factions in Iraq to help restore stability in the country. At the same time, it sees an important role for Saudi Arabia, "The Saudis could use their Islamic credentials to help reconcile differences between Iraqi factions…" Here again, it remains bewildering how the ISG authors got the notion that the Al-Sauds have strong Islamic credentials. They should have looked at the recent book by Madawi Al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation.

Still, the report does put forward a suggestion that would have broadly benefited U.S.-Iranian relations-which was summarily rejected by the administration. On December 6, Tony Snow was asked about one of the ISG's more helpful recommendations of decoupling Iran's enrichment program from a U.S. dialogue with Iran-leaving negotiations instead to the Security Council. For all the administration's cautious and pro forma lip service to selected parts of the ISG report, Mr. Snow gave that counsel short thrift, responding that Iran would have to suspend enrichment before Washington would be willing to have a one-on-one dialogue.

Setting preconditions to dialogue, when it is the United States that wants that dialogue, will not get Iran to the table in an atmosphere that could be helpful. U.S.-Iranian relations cannot be simply seen in the context of America's predicament in Iraq. Washington is hardly in a position to dictate or to bully Iran into doing its bidding. If the United States wants Iran's cooperation and support, it is time to understand Iranian concerns. In broad strokes, the ISG missed a great opportunity to jump-start the long neglected U.S.-Iranian dialogue, a dialogue that could only be beneficial to the entire Middle East region. And the parts the authors did get right have already been rejected out of hand by the administration.

Hossein Askari is Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.