“If the U.S. had seen the same opening Iran did after 9/11, there wouldn’t be 3000 centrifuges spinning right now,” said Barbara Slavin, a senior diplomatic reporter at USA Today and author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.
Slavin, who is also on leave this year as a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, joined Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States and president of the National Iranian American Council, in a discussion at the Center for American Progress titled “Nuclear Meltdown: Rebuilding a Coherent Policy Toward Iran.” Joseph Cirincione, Senior Fellow and Director of Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress and co-author of Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Iranian Nuclear Crisis, moderated the panel.
The books, said Cirincione, are “very complementary,” and provided a good starting point for a discussion about what would constitute a new U.S. policy toward Iran in light of the new National Intelligence Estimate that cast doubt on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The authors painted a complex history of U.S.-Iranian relations. Both Slavin and Parsi agreed that Israel had influenced U.S. policy in Iran and that the United States had missed an opportunity to improve relations with Iran after 9/11. Because of this, and the United States’ continued refusal to engage the Iranians in the Middle East peace process—in effect, isolating them—it will now be more difficult for the next administration to negotiate with them.
According to the authors, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995 and 1996 and did not invite Iran to the Middle East peace process in 1993, a move Iran viewed as a deliberate effort to exclude them. In Iran’s view, the United States and Israel then began to establish a “new world order” in the Middle East, at which point Iran increased its support for groups opposing Israel. Towards the end of the Clinton administration, U.S. officials did attempt to reach out to Iran, but it was seen as too little, too late. Initially, the Iranians welcomed an administration change in 2001, because George W. Bush came from an oil background and they had good relations with his father. But the Bush administration repeatedly eschewed opportunities to work with them.
Fast-forward to the recent Annapolis peace conference, which again excluded Iran, according to both authors. “Why not include Iran?” asked Slavin. “They are a country that has the ability to wreck the whole process.” Parsi, who was born in Iran and grew up in Sweden, agreed, saying, “If Iran is included [in the peace process] they can be extremely helpful, but if you exclude them, they say, ‘if you think you’re going to make a deal without us, you’re wrong.’”
Parsi also contradicted allegations concerning Iran’s interference in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. “There is an absence of evidence that Iran is supporting the Taliban and arming them to attack U.S. forces,” he said.
Both authors thought there was still a chance to negotiate with Iran diplomatically despite missed chances in the past. But this option would require a different approach than the Bush administration has taken.
“One of the fundamental requirements of diplomatic relations is you have to recognize the legitimacy of the other party. The Bush administration has repeatedly failed to do this,” said Slavin. “They call Iran a ‘regime’.” Parsi added, “We need to recognize that in order to create a stable Middle East, we cannot exclude some of the most powerful states there. It’s like if we tried to create a stable Europe after World War II by excluding Germany. A framework must include all countries including Israel and Iran.”
Continuing, Parsi said, “a deal between the U.S. and Iran would include some [uranium] enrichment on Iranian soil, which Israel would view as a threat. Ending the enrichment is not viable. We need to take a step back, take new, realistic objectives, and make sure any program Iran has is not a weapons program, which is realistic, but to take a hard-line approach and insist they not have a program at all is not realistic.”
Cirincione wanted to know what steps Iran would need to take in order to take part in bilateral talks. Slavin outlined suggestions that had actually been on the table with Iran in the past, including full transparency of its nuclear program, full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, taking action against terrorists, and supporting democratic institutions in Iraq.
All agreed that the U.S. needs to find a diplomatic way forward with Iran. Parsi thought the turmoil in Pakistan was an issue the United States and Iran could work together on. “Yes, Pakistan has nuclear weapons and instability is great. That is an area where the U.S. and Iran have a common interest, which we should recognize and use to build trust.”
Ultimately, “we should try to get diplomats back to Iran,” said Slavin. “We can’t influence the country from the outside. We need some kind of dialogue and relationship.”