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3/18/05

The American Diplomatic Coup: A New Window of Opportunity for US-Iran Relations

By Hooshang Amirahmadi, AIC
 
The US has now joined the European Trio (England, France and Germany) in a new carrot-and-stick strategy that wants to convince Iran to halt uranium enrichment permanently in return for an economic incentive package that includes selling civilian airplane spare parts to Iran, and dropping US opposition to Iran's quest for membership in the World Trade Organization. The flip side is that if Iran refuses the offer, the EU will cooperate with the US in reporting Iran to the UN Security Council for possible multilateral sanctions.

Why this sudden US change of heart, one might ask? The main reason, according to reliable sources, is that during their recent visits to Europe, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice convinced the European Trio that unless Iran's uranium enrichment program completely and permanently stops, it would in due course build nuclear weapons. The Europeans, while accepting this argument, warned the US that such a demand would lead to the inevitable failure of their negotiations with Iran, which has insisted on its right to uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes.

Nonetheless, the Europeans agreed to change their position, from recognizing Iran's right to uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes to the US position of not recognizing such a right for Iran, if the Bush administration joined the negotiations by supporting the Trio's economic incentives for Iran. The Trio also accepted the US demand that if their carrot-based negotiations failed, they would join the administration to report Iran to the United Nations for a tougher stick-based approach.

The inherent inability of Europe to handle major international crises independent of the US led them to finally accept the American agenda for negotiations with Iran. It is this European dependence on the US that Iran has failed to appreciate, and which led Tehran to fruitless diplomacy with the EU Trio. The Bush administration has won a public diplomacy coup against Europe and Iran. Given the low price the US has offered, and Iran's insistence on its right to maintain uranium enrichment, the negotiations are doomed to fail.

Such an outcome will serve the Bush administration in a number of ways. Europe will be forced to accept an American solution and Iran will find it impossible to refuse to deal with the US directly. Yet the most important immediate benefit to the US is in the area of public relations, the purpose for which the US supported the EU Trio in the first place. If it had not joined the negotiations and they failed, the blame would have gone to the US; now that the US has joined and offered "incentives," the blame will fall on Iran.

The US needed to shift the blame on Iran to make it easier for it to report Tehran to the UN for multilateral sanctions and/or imposition of other options, including the use of force. President Bush has clearly expressed his administration's public diplomacy ploy: "We are working with our friends to make sure not only the world hears that but that the negotiating strategy achieves the objective of pointing out where guilt needs to be, as well as achieving the objective of no nuclear weapons." (New York Times, Thursday March 3, 2005).
 
Similarly, referring to the US-EU joint carrot-and-stick Iran strategy, Secretary of State Rice told Reuters on March 11 that "This is about unifying the international community so that it's Iranians who are isolated, not the United States." Meanwhile, and parallel to its public diplomacy, the US is making efforts to report Iran to the UN Security Council. Thus, when President Bush says "all options" remain open, he is not contemplating serious diplomacy, which requires direct dialogue and willingness to compromise. Good faith negotiating is the key to successful diplomacy.

Public diplomacy aside, forcing Iran into a strategic choice between permanently forgoing its rights to uranium enrichment and facing American rage is the ultimate purpose of the US strategy in joining the EU in its negotiations with Iran. Under this condition, Iran might decide to stop the negotiations and accuse the Trio of backing off from their original position, thus risking a showdown with the EU-US coalition in the UN. Alternatively, Iran might decide to accept the enrichment-for-incentive exchange, but only after more carrots are added to the package.

Iran will be well advised to take this latter road and use the indirect opening to the US to build confidence with Washington. Iran could be tempted to ask for a long list of incentives, including relief from American sanctions and removal from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. At this early stage, however, it will be a mistake for Iran to demand more than what the Americans are prepared to offer. The one thing that Iran must demand Americans do is to join the negotiations more directly, a demand that the Bush administration should welcome.

The window of opportunity that has been developed can be further opened if Iran and the US were to use the European channel to engage and then bypass that medium for a more direct dialogue. Ultimately, the deal over the Iranian uranium enrichment programs has the potential to make a large dent in the ice of US-Iran relations, leading to its gradual normalization. As the US experience with other dictatorships has shown in recent times, diplomatic ties are crucial for resolution of international problems and for the development of democratic institutions.

While Washington now has Iran on its toes to accept its proposed solution to Iran's nuclear crisis, the balance could tip in favor of Iran if the opportunity is not used for further US-Iran engagement. Iran would win the public relations against the US if the Bush administration were to refuse Iran's call for more direct talks. Iran could also walk out of the negotiations if its reasonable demands are ignored and the regime humiliated. Some hard-line conservatives have dubbed the Iranian pragmatic negotiators as traitors. On the nuclear issue, they have most Iranians on their side.

The Bush administration has threatened Tehran with multilateral sanctions and military attacks if Iran does not stop uranium enrichment. While such US actions would inflict significant costs on Iran and the Iranian people, they would not end the regime or halt its enrichment activities. On the contrary, they will further militarize the regime, strengthen its resolve to build a nuclear bomb, destroy what is left of the reform movement, and produce an anti-American backlash among a generally US-friendly population. The only realistic option is to use the opportunity that has developed to engage Iran toward normalization of relations
 
Hooshang Amirahmadi is Professor and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University and President of the American Iranian Council.
 
 

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