The American Iranian Council (AIC)


Toward an Obama Policy for Better U.S.-Iran Relations



The ongoing promotion of coercive diplomacy, based on a "carrots and sticks" framework, and the continuing threats of military action against Iran - "all options remain on the table" -- have failed to achieve their stated objectives, which is to change Iran's behaviour in areas such as uranium enrichment, support for "terrorism," opposition to Middle East peace and human rights violation. These policy approaches are based on false assumptions about Iran, an incomplete understanding of the Islamic Republic, and a problematic definition of issues standing between the two governments. They also fail to realize that, as long as Washington remains hostile to Tehran, the best option of the Islamic Republic in relations to the U.S. is to maintain the prevailing "neither-peace nor-war" status quo.

More importantly, these approaches, official and proposed, fail to map out a U.S.-Iran relationship that the United States should want to emerge at the end of successful negotiations over these problem areas. Will the U.S. be satisfied with an Iran that has changed its "behavior" in all these "problem" areas to the U.S. satisfaction but has at the same time forged a strategic alliance with American future rivals for global and regional leadership, such as Russia or China? Does Iran have a strategic value for the U.S. as one of the largest and oldest nations in the region, and one that sits in the middle of the world's most energy-rich regions, namely, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf? Does Iran have any strategic value for the U.S. as a nation of talents and culture, a regional magnet, a major oil producer, and a large market?

If the U.S. is serious about improving its relationship with Iran and then build a strategic partnership with it, it must undergo a "paradigm shift" in its vision, thinking and policy toward Iran. This paradigm shift must be reflected in a visionary speech by President Barak Hussein Obama, and offer more sensible assumptions about Iran's power and purpose, a better understanding of Tehran's concerns and interests, and a mutually acceptable definition of problems in the relationship. The paradigm shift should also involve removing the decades-long "neither-peace nor-war" freeze in relations and defining a desired relationship. The paradigm shift must begin by removing this paralyzing deadlock and its associated lack of vision as part of a "Big Push" way forward that also includes a bold and meaningful material incentive package.

Specifically, the "price" the U.S. should pay involves declaring that Iran will be seen and addressed as a "normal country," with a "normal regime," and that the U.S. does not promote, or seek, regime change in Iran. The U.S. should also acknowledge that a strong Iran is not a dangerous Iran as perpetrators of the containment and use-of-force policies argue. The U.S. should also involve Iran in definition of problems that stand between them, "terrorism" in particular, and design its policy interactively and within a broader regional approach that also includes issues of mutual interests and key stakeholders. A new U.S. policy toward Iran should envision Iran as a future strategic partner, not just as a "well-behaved country" or a "client state." Such a policy will sure be acceptable to the Iranian government and attractive to its people.

The "price" that Iran should pay involves giving support to, and not spoiling, the position held by the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). They accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of the UN Resolutions 242 and 338. Further, Iran would cease providing military support to Hamas and Hezbollah, while continuing its non-military support, given that the U.S. would no longer consider them "terrorist" groups if they were to actually stop violent actions against Israel. In the uranium enrichment area, there would be a "freeze" by Iran for a pre-set duration while maintaining its rights to use nuclear technology for civilian purposes. Last but not least, the Islamic Republic would allow free and fair elections as required by its membership in Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations.

A most troubling issue in U.S.-Iran relations has been to find a feasible approach to engage Iran to begin with. Indeed, procedural matters, rather than substantive issues, have been at the core of the obstacles to U.S.-Iran engagement. In the pages that follow, this paper offers a realistic, though ambitious, alternative model for the U.S. to successfully engage Iran. Within this framework then the policy makers can build the many nuts and bolts needed to move negotiations on specific problems. The framework begins by challenging the current and proposed coercive diplomacy as "a road to nowhere," and rejects the use-of-force approach as "a road to hell." It offers a diplomatic "path to peace" based on a different vision and understanding of Iran, and one founded on transparency and the simultaneous engagement of the Iranian government and people.