No one, not even an Iranian decisionmaker, knows what kind of deal Tehran would accept in order to reach an accommodation with the U.S. that truly addressed Iranian concerns because Tehran has never been offered such a deal. Talk is cheap; when the deal is on the table and one must either take it or walk away, the situation is different.
The U.S., not Iran, is the superpower. The U.S., not Iran, is the nuclear power. The U.S., not Iran, has invaded and occupied countries on Iran’s border; Iran has occupied no one and poses no threat to the U.S. mainland. The U.S., and—even more—its regional superpower ally/client Israel has threatened to attack Iran; Iran has insulted Israel and hoped for its collapse but has not threatened to launch an attack. Washington must make the first move.
In order to find out if a mutually acceptable accommodation between Washington and Tehran is possible, Washington will have to find within itself a degree of flexibility, patience, and creativity that it has yet to demonstrate. Only then will the world find out if the current Iranian decisionmakers will make a deal, or if the very offer of a deal will provoke the emergence of a new set of Iranian decisionmakers with more creativity of their own.
The challenge is a complex one; one speech or some minor tactical shift that continues to overlook some fundamental principle will not do the trick. Several tentative steps of the Obama Administration so far have been in the right direction. They still fall well short of the fundamental contextual shift that will be needed, but Washington is surely aware of the need for caution during the Iranian electoral campaign to avoid the appearance of insincere attempts to interfere.
Eventually, however, Washington will need to recognize legitimate Iranian concerns in at least three basic policy areas: independence, influence, and security. Iran must feel that it has a degree of independence that allows it to follow its own path. That will not suffice, however: Iran is no hermit kingdom. It will also demand a measure of international influence. Its preferences on regional affairs will need to be taken into account. But security is bedrock: Iran must feel that it has an acceptable degree of physical (military) and economic security. The rest of this essay will explore the vast array of steps that could be taken by Washington and the rest of the West to alleviate Iranian security concerns.
Security encompasses the need for national physical and economic security as well as the need of a regime for political security.
If the three basic drivers of behavior referred to above are accepted as the starting point for designing an effective foreign policy toward Iran, the next broad policy question will concern where to position policy along each of the three continua. That is, each should be thought of as a continuum rather than a point. For example, no magic spot exists that will “remove” Iranian security concerns: it is a matter of “how much.”
Security is not only the basic driver of human political behavior but also ironically the one adversaries consistently fail to take into account. Humans seem almost psychologically incapable of understanding the other fellow’s security concerns. The professional foreign policy decisionmaker simply must rise above this common human limitation and learn to appreciate the legitimate security concerns of adversaries.
· Regime Change. For Washington to establish a clear, formal, public policy that it will not promote regime change in Tehran would perhaps be the lowest-cost step Washington could make to alleviate Iranian security concerns. Indeed, given the evident failure to change the regime, for Washington now to reject the effort would clearly signal a desire for change and take out of Ahmadinejad’s hands a free gift: incumbents benefit from being able to stand tall as defenders against a foreign threat. Why make him look any taller than he actually is?
· Anti-Iranian Terrorism. For a nation on a global anti-terrorism campaign that is also trying to establish a new, positive tone in its relations with the Muslim world, it is essential that there be not even the slightest appearance that it condones terrorism against the Muslim world. Iran is currently under threat from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an anti-Tehran insurgent/terrorist group, and from violence among the Baluchi minority in Pakistan (since Baluchis also live on the Iranian side of the border). Any steps Washington takes to demonstrate its opposition to violence against Iran by either of these groups will pay dividends in terms both of clearing Washington’s name and setting a new tone for relations with Iran.
· Narcotics Smuggling. A clear win-win area is narcotics smuggling from Afghanistan. Both Iran and the U.S. need a joint effort to minimize this trade, which not only threatens the social stability of the West and Iran but enriches the Afghan insurgents the U.S. is fighting.
· Economic Security. Since Washington is leading an economic embargo against Iran, innumerable options exist for enhancing Iran’s economic security. Iran argues that it needs nuclear power because its petroleum resources are declining; declining or not, they are certainly becoming more difficult to use as Iran’s industrial infrastructure deteriorates. Allowing Iran access to hydrocarbon exploitation technology would be a very low-risk option for the U.S. simply because of the very long timeframe required to upgrade Iran’s industrial base. An agreement in principle with numerous built-in checkpoints would leave Washington free to reconsider for years into the future.
· Base Inspections. Over the past decade Washington has surrounded Iran with an enormous archipelago of military bases backed up by a naval armada in the Persian Gulf that must appear highly menacing to Iran. Whatever Washington’s original intent in constructing such a military archipelago, given the fact that they exist and that the process of disentangling the U.S. from Iraq is already underway, why not boldly put the bases on the negotiating table? This need not be a crass “What would you give me in return for vacating Base X?” One could, for example, imagine a U.S. invitation to Iran to join in discussions about the type of armaments to be installed in U.S. bases surrounding Iran, for example. Going a step further, the U.S. might offer a new principle for international law: following the precedent of inspections of nuclear capabilities, why not have inspections of foreign military bases? If we claim the right to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities, why should Iran not have the right to inspect U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to see what sort of arms they may contain that could be used to attack Iran? Not only would that be a confidence-building measure, it might provide Tehran with just the rationale it needs to compromise on the nuclear issue.
· Regional Arms Limitations. Iran has been criticized for trying to import land-to-air missiles, a weapon class by definition defensive. A sincere effort at regional security would permit defensive arms while attempting to constrain offensive arms (e.g., the capability to refuel long-range fighter/bombers or bunker-busting bombs). Discussions along these lines would also lead naturally to the issue of inspections. Down the road, the negotiators might consider the idea of U.N. inspections (with Iranian representatives) of U.S. arms deliveries to Israel and of Russian or Chinese arms deliveries to Iran to ensure that both sides were delivering only arms of approved types. Over time, such deliveries could increasingly be focused on defensive rather than offensive weapons. Once again, as with restoring Iranian economic security, the process would take years and incorporate numerous checkpoints.
· Nuclear Arms Race. A maximal step toward regional security would be to ban nuclear arms in the region. If that is deemed politically too difficult, a lesser step would be a U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” i.e., a U.S. guarantee to defend any country threatened by nuclear attack (in return for a believable renunciation of the goal of acquiring nuclear arms). If even that is still deemed politically too difficult, a smaller step in the same direction would be a U.S. statement that it takes nuclear threats off the table and will oppose any nuclear threat against a non-nuclear state. Such a statement might be made more believable by clear action to remove nuclear-capable submarines from the coastlines of other countries and, taking a page from U.S.-Soviet arms agreements, the return of any nuclear-capable submarines of regional states to port and the opening of their missile hatches.
The range of steps that could be taken to improve Iran’s sense of security is demonstrably enormous. More than just “steps,” bilateral accommodation would entail the implementation of several simultaneous processes, all lengthy and with any number of opportunities for checking progress and reconsidering policy. Within the security realm alone (leaving for separate discussion the realms of Iranian independence and global influence), one could envisage at least four decade-long processes:
- bringing the Iranian hydrocarbon industry up to world standards;
- reassuring Iran that American regional military bases and naval forces were not intended as a threat to Iran;
- establishing a regional control regime over non-nuclear weapons systems;
- creating a regional nuclear regime.
The existence of multiple, simultaneous processes automatically provides built-in incentives to cooperate.
Would any of these steps impress Ahmadinejad? Perhaps not; after all, his career, like that of his Israeli counterpart Netanyahu, rides on the sense of insecurity. However, such steps might well impress the likes of Moussavi or Khatami or Larijani or some unknown but influential adviser. Yes, Ahmadinejad and the garrison state mentality encouraged by him and his IRGC (Revolutionary Guard) and Basij (paramilitary youth force akin to the Red Guards of China’s Cultural Revolution) supporters would constitute a powerful source of opposition to the process I have outlined. But the longer the current hostility endures, the more powerful this zenophobic power center becomes. It is not to the advantage of the West to continue fertilizing its growth.
Putting it in parliamentary terms, how far along the “Security Continuum” from “complete insecurity” to “complete security” does the U.S. have to go in order to gain the agreement of a winning Iranian elite coalition? For every uncompromising mullah, there is a profoundly philosophical and logical mullah. For every Revolutionary Guard officer committed to Shi’ite empire, there is a Revolutionary Guard officer simply striving for national security. Emotional accusations about “mad mullahs” and being a “new Hitler” are either the crutches of the intellectually lazy or smokescreens for dishonest politicians with private agendas. Intentionally or not, such rhetoric simply obscures the wealth of opportunities that exists to resolve U.S.-Iranian differences.