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Iran and America: Can Obama Find a Political Solution?


By Hooshang Amirahmadi, Ph.D. (Professor, Rutgers University, President, American Iranian Council)

Presented at the Le Cercle Conference, Washington, DC, November 14, 2008



NOTE: This speech was presented at an off-the-record meeting in Washington, D.C., on November 14 of 2008. I am releasing the speech for two key reasons. First, it forms the foundation for an AIC position paper on a President Obama's Iran policy that we plan to release soon; and second, it gives, in its  beginning part, a short account of my recent experiences in Iran, particularly regardiang  AIC's OFAC license and my "shuttle diplomacy" between Washington and Tehran.  In a subsequent report, I will give a more detailed account about both these matters. I will greatly appreciate any comments, which can be sent to me at .


Ladies and Gentlemen,  


Good morning!


It is a great honor for me to speak at this distinguished gathering of transatlantic statesmen and experts. Let me begin by thanking the Honorable Lord Norman Lamont for his kind invitation and Beverley Gaynor, the Lord's capable assistant, for her tireless effort coordinating the many pieces of this event from across the Atlantic. Taking place days after the historic U.S. presidential elections, this conference could not happen at a better time.


The title of my speech, Iran and America: Can Obama Find a Political Solution?" was suggested by Lord Lamont and I accepted it without hesitation because I thought it asked a focused and timely question, requiring a fresh look at an old struggle.  Let me begin by positively responding to the question but with reservations: while a political solution is possible, it will require a paradigm shift in U.S. policy, and the path does not need to be solely political.


To provide a context for my response, let me begin by relaying my recent experiences in Iran and then provide a conceptual explanation of one possible way to break through the current U.S.-Iran spiral conflict.  For the past 10 months, I have spent a substantial amount of time in Iran speaking with many government officials, lawmakers, leaders of the loyal opposition, religious authorities, key members of the civil society, as well as ordinary citizens.


My more than 20 years of non-stop efforts to help normalize U.S.-Iran relations has made me a well-known figure in the country, indeed, one of the symbols of U.S.-Iran relations. Accordingly, my very presence in Iran generates an outpouring of public debate for and against U.S.-Iran relations. I often find myself used by the media and the political elite to bring transparency to U.S.-Iran relations and to underscore public support for normalization.


My trip to Iran this past October generated more controversy than usual because of my goal to submit an application to the Government in order to open up an American Iranian Council (AIC) office in the country. As many of you may have heard, the Council has been granted a license by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Department of Treasury, to open an office in Iran.   Original support for the idea came from the State Department itself.


Iran's Foreign Ministry directed the AIC to put in an application with the Interior Ministry, which we did. Our application will be subjected to an inter-agency review process that includes the Ministries of Information and Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Interior, where a three-member panel will make the final decision. The process can take up to several months. If approved, and I am not sure that it will be, the AIC will be the first peace and conflict U.S. NGO to hold an office in Iran since diplomatic ties were broken following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.


The news of the Council's OFAC license and my efforts to establish the office in Iran became the subject of a heated media blitz and public debate. High-ranking government officials took contradictory positions, with many previously anti-American politicians supporting the idea. President Ahmadinejad and his Foreign Minister, Mr. Motaki, took an equivocal position. Most reformist leaders remained silent while the reformist media and general public were broadly supportive.


While the debate was raging regarding the pros and cons of an AIC office in Iran, the news arrived from Washington that the Bush Administration suspended an expected offer to establish an upgraded U.S. Interest Section in Tehran. Although later, Secretary Rice changed the report saying that the suspension was temporary to disallow for any controversy before U.S. presidential elections, it nevertheless complicated the political climate surrounding the hoped for AIC office.


Specifically, many in the Iranian Government thought the news meant that the Bush administration wanted to make the proposed AIC office a proxy for the U.S. Interest Section. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the U.S.-Iran spiral conflict, perception is often reality, where even well-intended words and actions, or honest misunderstandings and mistakes can work to harm relations.  It is no wonder, therefore, that the wall of mutual distrust has, over time, grown higher.


I share these stories to clarify a few important facts: one, the debate about U.S.-Iran relations is not the taboo subject that it used to be; it is now in the public sphere; two, an overwhelming majority of Iranians, I dare to say upward of 80 percent, including government officials, are supportive of better relations with the U.S.; and three, even the staunchest of revolutionary leaders are open to normalization of relations if it can be harmlessly and honorably attained.


I have lived in the United States for thirty-five years, of which twenty have been devoted to bringing the two great nations together again. The desire to find a diplomatic solution for the U.S.-Iran conflict is also discernable in the United States.  This is not just an argument developed from my experience; it is also based on several key public opinion polls that found most Americans want the conflict resolved peacefully. Even the Bush Administration has avoided a military confrontation with Iran and has advised Israel that it would not support an attack on Iran.


The negotiable nature of the issues in U.S.-Iran relations also suggests that they should have been resolved long ago.  For example, issues such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and democracy-related deficits are hardly particular to U.S.-Iran relations - they are global issues of our time, requiring global cooperation.  From the perspective of U.S.-Iran relations, therefore, they should be issues of mutual concerns and causes for cooperation.


Yet, the most important fact about the U.S.-Iran spiral conflict is that it defies resolution and continues along the path toward a perilous future. Given the current condition, where the UN Security Council (UNSC) is imposing sanctions and demanding that Iran freeze its uranium enrichment, and with Iran refusing to heed this demand, it seems unlikely that the present state of "no-peace no-war" condition is sustainable. Indeed, the logical outcome of the UNSC sanctions against Iran is the use of force in the foreseeable future. 


Why, then, despite such desires on both sides, does the spiral conflict continue, and that, in the absence of a compromise, war could become the inevitable outcome? Let me suggest four sets of reasons: first, the negotiable issues have been over-politicized to the point of obsession, turning these potentially unifying matters into divisive and non-negotiable issues; second, both sides have tended to ignore their common interests and neglected to develop policies  for cooperation; third, while the U.S. and Iran have real and serious differences, fictional narratives have also played an important role in their troubled relations; and fourth, U.S.-Iran relations suffer from distrust, suspicion and mutual demonization which are often rooted in false assumptions about capability and intention.


The last of these reasons, namely false assumptions, has been and continues to be the most troubling. Specifically, the current impasse is essentially maintained by two sets of substantive and procedural reasons that influence, and are influenced by, their mutual distrust.  At the core of the substantive reasons lies the incorrect assumption about the interplay of Iran's power and purpose. Specifically, it is argued that a stronger Iran is a more dangerous Iran; the corollary of which is: a weaker Iran is a safer Iran and one which is better for the region and beyond.


Iran's nuclear crisis is the product of this troubling old geopolitical assumption about Iran.  When Britain had India as its most prized colony in the mid-Nineteenth Century, it saw in Iran a possible rival (Iran had conquered India before the British) and decided that Iran's power should be contained. While Britain had a limited purpose, over time Iran's adversaries advanced the idea that a strong Iran was a dangerous Iran and that a weaker Iran was better for the region.


Indeed, the idea constitutes the conceptual foundation for current sanctions against Iran by the U.S. and the UNSC. It was based on this same idea that the West, the UK and the U.S. in particular, did not want Iran to build railways in the 1920s, or steel mill plants in the 1960s, or nationalize its oil or successfully implement its democratic development in 1950s.  Currently, the West does not want Iran to enrich uranium.  


The fact that Iran has not initiated any conflict against its neighbors in the last 250 years is conveniently ignored by its antagonists. Yet, the contemporary Iranian history is witness to an opposite experience: that any time Iran has been weak, the region has been less stable, while a strong Iran has tended to promote regional stability. 


The fact that a strong Iran was a better Iran for the region was successfully tested by the Nixon Doctrine in the 1970s.  However, the Shah's mismanagement of domestic politics brought that short-lived experience to a halt with the 1979 revolution. Significantly, weaker post-revolutionary Iran encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade the country. This episode, in turn, led to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and then, further, to two U.S. wars against Iraq. Indeed, the Iraq of today is the byproduct of a weak Iran.


We should not ignore the fact that the Iranian leaders are also a cause for the misperception about a strong Iran. They often speak in words that are threatening to rivals and make claims that are unreal or simply inflated. The present government is a master of this dangerously false and propagandist approach. President Ahmadinejad's rhetorical statements about wiping Israel off the map and the Holocaust being a myth are just two examples. Iran's past imperial culture and its current isolation also feeds into these rather naïve power-projectionist proclamations.


A similarly troubling miscalculation of Iran's power is that it is currently on the rise. Coupled with the misperception that a strong Iran is a dangerous Iran, the rising power argument has given the nation's adversaries fuel to further isolate it politically and cripple it economically in order to contain "the Iranian threat." The argument is based on the disappearance of Iraq as a regional bulwark against Iran and the rise of shi'ism there, Iran's nuclear enrichment progress, elimination of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the rising stature of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.


The facts that Iran has a weak economy, that it is technologically backward, that it is still a consumer rather than an innovator, and that its so-called military might is based on no solid economic foundation, are conveniently ignored. Iran's adversaries also ignore the fact that Iran's strategic rivals are on the rise. There are two groups that are propagating the rising-power argument: one group would like to see the U.S. and Iran in a military conflict, justifying this position by arguing that a powerful Iran is a dangerous Iran. The other group, which includes some of Iran's friends, would like to see the U.S. negotiate with a strong Iran.


A third false assumption about the Islamic Republic involves its alleged "abnormality," that  is, that it is an irrational,  unpredictable, and rogue state, which hardly calculates its steps before taking them, thereby making it "dangerous."  This irrationality is often said to emanate from its theocratic nature and faith-based actions. The chaotic state structure and its factional politics, where lines of authorities are often blurred, have been an additional source of concern and confusion in the West.


This problematic view of the Islamic Republic as dangerous and abnormal, coupled with the surprising resiliency of the regime and its blustering behavior, has often led to counterproductive policies toward Iran and to interventions in its domestic affairs.  Thus, for the past 30 years, Washington has intermittently applied policies designed to change Tehran's behavior including attempts to contain its power, to change its regime - back again to changing Tehran's behavior, and so on.


On the procedural side, the two core mistakes of the U.S. and its allies have been caused by assumptions that: one, Iran's nuclear dispute and U.S.-Iran conflict in general can be isolated from other troubling regional issues and conflicts; and two, Iran can be expected to respond to incentives or disincentives while it has the option of living with the prevailing "no-peace no-war" status quo. These assumptions are vividly displayed during the negotiations between the 5+1 group and Iran. Yet, the issues can only be resolved with a regionally integrated solution, and unless the "no-peace no-war" option is removed, the Islamic Republic will not respond to material rewards or coercive diplomacy.


The U.S. has also made the assumption that in an increasingly materialistic and political world, imposing sanctions and offering incentives and direct talk will make Iran bend. This assumption, now part of the Democratic Party Platform, ignores the immense value that Iranians have always placed on their pride and prestige.  The Islamic Republic has further exacerbated this Iranian nationalistic view toward its self-respect, particularly when the nation has been badly demonized and denigrated in the Western world and beyond.


I recently experienced, first hand, the fact that no amount of incentives will attract Iran as long as the conceptual and procedural problems remain and Tehran is able to maintain the "no-peace no-war" status quo.  On one occasion, I delivered a statement to Iran that included suspension of American sanctions on oil and gas in return for Iran freezing its enrichment activity for 6 weeks. In a subsequent communiqué I took to Tehran, Iran was asked to provide the U.S. with a wish list in return for the freeze. On both occasions, Tehran failed to accept the offers. As President Ahmadinejad put it, "we are not interested in incentives; we want the U.S. to leave us alone!"




Let me now return to my view that there is indeed a solution to the U.S.-Iran conflict.  To achieve such a result, the U.S. needs to make a few major conceptual and procedural adjustments to its policy toward Iran. I wish to suggest that such adjustments begin with a speech by President Barak Obama at an appropriate time. Let me emphasize that the President should only make the speech after he has consulted and convinced U.S allies, Israelis and Arabs in particular, and he is assured that Iran will respond positively.  The speech should include the following key ideas, commensurate with Mr. Obama's call for change in U.S. foreign policy:


1.      The present state of "no-peace no-war" does not serve the interests of either nation and must change.  As war is harmful to both sides, peace remains the only option and the U.S. is ready to give it a real chance;


2.       The issues between the U.S. and Iran are part and parcel of other regional problems, and that an integrated regional solution is called for in which Iran, as a regional power, must also participate along with other regional states and responsible non-state actors;


3.      The assumption that a weaker Iran is a better Iran for its region is incorrect and that the U.S. will be prepared to partner with Iran and other states toward collective gains, strength and economic prosperity; a strong Iran will act as a stabilizing force, and such an Iran should not imply weakened other states;


4.      The American respect for Iran's creed and culture as well as its independence and territorial integrity is unconditional based on the understanding that Iran is more than just a strategic geopolitical entity with rich natural resources and a vast market;


5.      The U.S.-Iran spiral conflict is the result of both fact and fiction, and that undue emphasis on divisive political issues have deprived the two nations of developing a common ground based on unifying regional and global interests; the zero-sum game has been played for too long;


6.      The U.S. will refrain from intervention in Iran's domestic affairs, recognizing the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of Iran, and upholding the idea that the Iranians deserve to live under democratic conditions; the United States supports free and fair elections in Iran and urges the Iranian government to respect  the human rights of the Iranian people; and  


7.      The U.S. recognizes Iran's security concerns and is prepared to work with it including regime, national, and energy security challenges. The U.S. also recognizes Iran's legitimate regional role and its rights to form regional alliances for peace and development.


The speech must particularly remove any idea of a war or regime change from the U.S. policy toward Iran.


The conceptual speech must be followed by a concrete policy designed to build further confidence and entice the regime and the Iranians to accept a deal with the U.S. which they consider fair and equitable.  Experience shows that two approaches are not effective with the Islamic Republic: one, a coercive diplomacy that emphasizes sanctions and the threat of force; and two, an incremental approach that fragments issues, offers negligible incentives, and requires tedious negotiations to implement.


The U.S. must adopt a "Big Push" approach toward Iran, not as a movement for resolving U.S.-Iran disputes at once, but as a "shock therapy" that can make a large enough crack in the wall of distrust between the two governments, in order to build confidence and save face on both sides. The requisite starting point for the "Big Push" is a change of vision and tone toward a more respectful language and relations already accomplished by President Obama's speech.  


The U.S. and Iran must also begin the movement by initiating a concerted diplomatic effort aimed at convincing the many stakeholders in U.S.-Iran relations, including Israelis and Arabs, that their interests will be protected. Next, both sides must agree to simultaneously express publically that they are prepared to normalize relations. They will also need to accept engagement in high-level diplomacy without any pre-conditions and with full transparency.


Following this initial confidence-building shock therapy, the U.S., in partnership with its allies, would need to offer Iran a considerable and well-publicized incentive package, complemented with an equally significant disincentive package that initially remains undisclosed and will be disclosed and activated only if the reward package were to be rejected by Iran. These big packages, part of a future global settlement, are originally intangible, that is they are not material offers, but become so in the course of their engagement. The incentive package must be designed as an economic windfall event in Iran when it is implemented.


The main function of the packages is to help implement the "Big Push" required to establish a U.S.-Iran bilateral dialogue for normalization of relations now that the "no war no peace" status quo has been removed. The reward package would, at the minimum, help remove Iran's sense of national, regime and energy insecurities, acknowledge Iran's pride as a great nation, recognize the Islamic system as legitimate and rational, and assist in economic development of the country. The publicized reward package must be so significant that the Iranian people would want to take it even if their government were to reject it.


To satisfy Iran's pride, the U.S. and its allies should recognize its right and need to enrich uranium within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as to remove Iran's nuclear dossier from the UNSC and return it to the IAEA. Iran's national security requires that it is securely sheltered from nuclear bombs currently in the region and beyond. Iran needs to be protected from larger nations.  A regional security system along with arrangements that will put a lid on further nuclear weapons development in the region can help with this requirement.


In the longer term, the best security guarantee for Iran will be to make the greater Middle East into a nuclear free zone. Iran's energy security will require that sanctions on Iran's oil and gas sector are lifted and that the nation receives international support and technological assistance to develop capabilities for production of nuclear energy in the long-term. The Islamic regime's security is more complicated in that the immediate threat is external while in the longer term, its survival will depend on its ability to reform the theocracy.


In return, Iran should consent: one, to freeze its enrichment activities for a set period, fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, ratify the Additional Protocols, and restart its enrichment programs at the end of the specified period or after it reaches an agreement  for a fully verifiable enrichment for civilian use - whichever comes first; and two, to remove all support for the anti-Israeli and anti-American groups in the region (Iraq and the Occupied Territories included), and officially accept the two-state solution for  the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


A decision to refuse this incentive package would impose colossal costs on the Islamic system (and on its adversaries too) - this should be rather remote possibility given that the Iranian people will surely demand that their government accept the reward package. Most Iranians will support normalization of relations with the U.S., provided that their national interests and pride are preserved, and that what they will be receiving in economic terms, in return for giving up on future bombs, is considerable.


Let me end with a word of caution for President-Elect Obama. The Democratic Party Platform states that a Democratic administration will pursue a policy of active diplomacy, combing an offer of significant rewards, direct negotiation without precondition and tougher sanctions to stop Iran's enrichment programs. This approach will fail to convince Iran to constructively engage with the U.S.  If Obama were to become disillusioned, he could turn into a more dangerous adversary for Iran than Mr. Bush has ever been. The only sure approach, as I have outlined in this speech, will combine a new paradigm of Iran's power and purpose, the removal of the "no-peace no-war" option, and a "Big Push" confidence-building approach.  President-elect Obama has called for change, and the time has come for a change of direction in U.S. policy toward Iran.


Thank you!

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