The current U.S. policy toward Iran is more emotion than calculation, born more of desperation than calculation. Bilateral acceptance of a positive-sum strategic attitude would be a game-changer.
Just as a chess game does not begin with checkmate, a state’s strategy should not begin with war. Threats, sanctions, the invasion of states bordering an adversary, the construction of archipelagos of military bases surrounding an adversary, terrorist campaigns to murder enemy scientists, references to “preventive” war, and the open consideration of using weapons of mass destruction against a non-threatening state simply because that state might be building or researching weapons of mass destruction are extremist options that should be saved for extreme circumstances. The possibility that an adversary will want some of the same weapons that everyone else has is not an extreme situation.
The current U.S. policy toward Iran is more emotion than calculation, born more of desperation than calculation. History teaches us that it has little likelihood of succeeding. It is much more likely to provoke momentum toward precisely the disaster it claims to be designed to avoid. The further one pushes the current policy the more intense will become the resistance of a cornered adversary and the more nervous will become the rest of the world.
The alternative is a new grand strategy, a real strategy thoughtfully constructed of an incremental series of consistent, mutually supporting, and logically consistent steps that build on each other to create a political atmosphere in which momentum builds toward a beneficial outcome. The most effective way to achieve this is by designing a positive-sum strategy while keeping one’s gun in one’s holster; everyone knows the gun is there.
A simple positive-sum American strategy for dealing with Iran should include the following components, implemented more-or-less in the following order, with Steps 1-7 to be implemented over a period of days, Steps 8-10 over subsequent weeks, and Steps 11-13 presented slowly, keeping time with Iran’s quid pro quos, over the ensuing months:
Step 1. Call Larijani’s Bluff.
In initial response to the offer by Mohammad Javad Larijani of “permanent human monitoring” to watch over Iranian nuclear transparency, Obama should respond positively to this conciliatory signal.
Step 2. End Anti-Iranian Terrorism.
Washington cannot demonstrate that it is negotiating in good faith with Iran unless it takes action to address the Israeli point on the triangle. A delicate first step vis-à-vis Tel Aviv would be a public statement by Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. opposes the murder of scientists, a statement that should privately be underscored at a minimum by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, if not at a higher level.
Step 3. Terminate Rhetorical Threats. Obama should order that no one in his administration make any further public threats about the U.S. or Israel launching a war of choice against Iran. Anyone who violated this order should immediately be fired.
Step 4. Recognize the Islamic Republic.
It exists; it governs; therefore, recognize it. Then, figure out how to deal with it.
Step 5. Offer to Negotiate Naval Rules of Engagement.
States go to war, sometimes with good reason, but no one wants a war by mistake. The greatest risk of war by mistake now appears to be a naval incident in the crowded Persian Gulf. Obama should suggest technical talks to develop mutual naval rules of engagement for the Persian Gulf.
Step 6. Combat Illegal Narcotics.
An obvious positive-sum issue begging to be addressed is the flow of illegal narcotics out of Afghanistan, where the war is setting up a situation analogous to that in Colombia during the Cali heyday of Pablo Escobar. Washington should move promptly to identify precise technical solutions designed to minimize smuggling into Iran.
Step 7. Avoid provoking sectarian conflict.
The U.S. should avoid any participation in minority campaigns either by Baluchis or Kurds to dismembering the Iranian state.
Step 8. Offer to Discuss Regional Sectarian Issues. Along with avoiding the provocation of sectarian conflict, Washington should at least discuss cooperation on regional sectarian issues of concern to Iran, specifically in Iraq and Bahrain, according to the following principles:
- Start with cautious exchanges of views;
- Offer broadened venues including other regional states;
- Expect slow progress;
- Use these talks initially as an indicator of Iranian sincerity and be ready to respond quickly to Iranian signs of cooperation.
Step 9. Ignore Insults/Threats From Tehran; Condemn Anti-Iranian Insults/Threats By Tel Aviv.Washington should ignore any threatening rhetoric from Tehran and express displeasure at any threatening rhetoric from Tel Aviv, setting, as it were, a new standard of politeness.
Step 10. Put Mutual National Security on the Table.
Washington must concede up front that Iran, like every other state, has legitimate national security concerns. This gives Iran a key reason for being cooperative. It also has the advantage of permitting Washington to introduce the other side of this three-sided coin – the security concerns of the U.S. and Israel.
Step 11. Make Rejection of WMD a National Security Gain.
Washington should make the case that rejecting weapons of mass destruction can lead to enhanced security. The logical case is straightforward: “we” promise not to use weapons against you that “you” do not have. Many attractive offers can be made in this context in return for Iranian nuclear transparency:
- Offer to support the idea of Russian sales of defensive missiles for protection against an aerial attack in return for nuclear transparency;
- Offer to terminate drone overflights of Iran;
- Offer to limit Israeli offensive capabilities by removing U.S. bunker-buster bombs from the Israeli arsenal, constraining the use of AWACS, rationing the supply of jet fuel;
- Offer to advocate Iranian-Israeli talks to constrain the routes of Israeli nuclear-capable submarines.
Step 12. Present a Plan for Resolution of the Nuclear Dispute.
- Offer to support the Iranian-Pakistani gas pipeline in return for nuclear progress;
- Offer to trade the end of sanctions for permanent human monitoring.
Step 13. Afghanistan.
- Offer to discuss resolution of the Afghan conflict;
- Include Iran in multinational effort to plan for the future of Afghanistan.
The point of defining a positive-sum strategic plan for dealing with Iran is not to solve all the problems but to create a context within which the problems can be discussed rationally. Doing business rationally does not mean all cooperation/no conflict, but it does mean the possibility of mutual benefit exists. Mutual recognition of that would be a game changer.