Foreign Policy Blogs

Engaging with Iran: A Step Forward.

Mark your calendars. October 1st is the date when Iran and the five UN Security Council members plus Germany will hold talks about the Iranian nuclear program.  The State Department spokesman Ian Kelly announced yesterday that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns – who was also at the Geneva talks – would represent the United States.  In the press briefing, Ian Kelly told the reporters that “the point of all this is to sit down with the Iranians and explain directly, face-to-face, the choice that they have.  And we’ve explained what that choice is.  They have – they can go down one path which leads to the – to integration with the international community, or they can continue down another path which leads to isolation.”  The full press briefing can be found here.

After eight years of Bush’s “axis of evil” approach, Obama’s promise of engagement with Iran is a welcome break.  Though I do realize that there are plenty of people who disagree with my sentiment (all you have to do is read the Wall Street Journal to realize that).  Iran to them is an intractable country, which can only be set right through tough sanctions or even military strikes.  But these people miss an important point: sanctions and threat of military strike only vitiates the effort to end the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Let’s first examine the military strike option.  The truth of matter is Iranian military is highly vulnerable- they know it and we should know it too.  The RAND document, Dangerous But Not Omnipotent Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East, shows that while Iran might have strong asymmetric doctrinal ambitions, Iran fields a weak conventional force:

Iranian leaders have long trumpeted their shift to an asymmetric strategy of homeland defense that would exact intolerable costs from an invader. Much of this rests on notions of “mosaic defense,” partisan warfare, and popular mobilization of Basiji auxiliaries. On the whole, however, Iran’s military remains mired in conventional doctrine because of bureaucratic inertia in procurement and frequent infighting between the Revolutionary Guard and conventional forces. Most of Iran’s military equipment is out of date and poorly maintained, and its ground forces suffer from both personnel and equipment shortages. With its outdated aircraft, the Iranian Air Force, in particular, is no match for its neighbors and certainly not for U.S. airpower (p. xvii).

The Iranian regime know that they cannot win against the United States in a conventional war.  But this is where the nuclear weapons make a difference.  A nuclear weapon will help change the equation and make it less likely that the United States will strike Iran or conduct a war against them.  Each time we threaten Iran with military strikes, we are reinforcing their belief that a nuclear weapon is necessary to protect Iran.  If a military strike was to happen, their fears will be confirmed and they will have no incentive to stop their nuclear weapons program.

As noted Political Scientist John Mearsheimer says, “Persuading Tehran to abandon its nuclear program will require Washington to address Iran’s legitimate security concerns and to refrain from overt threats.”  This is where diplomacy can play a constructive role.

Plus diplomacy is more effective than sanctions.  The logic behind supporting sanctions is blockading Iran’s foreign supplies of gasoline will lead to an increase in the price per gallon at the pump, which will hopefully cause the Iranian people to rise up and demand a halt to Iran’s nuclear program.  But as Jon Cole points out in his blog, sanctions do not work, with Iraq being the prime example:

Sanctions on Iraq just weakened civil society and cast down the country to fourth world status, killing some 500,000 innocent infants and toddlers, while signally failing to remove the regime. In fact, destroying civil society has the effect of bolstering the state, especially when it is an oil state.

The uprising of the Iranian people in the aftermath of the election fraud shows the vibrancy of the Iranian civil society.  As the Iranian regime brutally represses their rights, it would be a tragedy if we in the West were to help crush their voices as well.  Robert Naiman also makes a similar point in this Huffington Post article, Mr. Mousavi’s Gas Embargo on Iran?, showing how sanction against Iran can be used by the Iranian regime to tarnish Mousavi’s  opposition campaign and help fuel anti-Americanism among the ordinary Iranian citizens:

If anyone in the U.S. really cares about the fate of the political opposition in Iran, as opposed to simply seeing it as a temporarily useful tool for attacking the Iranian government, imposing a gas embargo on the country as punishment for enriching uranium is a surefire way to kick the Iranian political opposition in the stomach. What is Mr. Mousavi supposed to say, when reporters ask him what his position is on the gas embargo, as they surely will? If he says he supports the embargo, he may be politically toast in Iran: every bad thing that happens to Iranians as a result of the embargo will be blamed on Mousavi by the Iranian government. If he says he is against it, then he’s saying that the signature Iran policy of the West is a policy to attack Iranian civilians; that’s going to reinforce the government’s case that Iran doesn’t have the luxury for democracy and human rights because it’s under external threat. The more such an embargo bites, the more the dynamic of Iranian politics would be: who hates the U.S. the most? I thought that was the dynamic that we were trying to get away from.

Let’s also not forget the human rights dimension of the effect of sanctions.  As Patrick Disney, Acting Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council, points out in his article, When All You Have is a Hammer, Every Iran Problem Looks Like a Nail, it is not the government that will suffer, but rather ordinary people:

What better way to show our support than by casting the common man into financial ruin? Think about who suffers the most in the US when gas prices rise due to shocks–it’s the poor. Why would it be any different in Iran? Certainly the elite won’t suffer the brunt of these sanctions–the Revolutionary Guards have been getting rich off smuggling sanctioned goods into the country for years. And with Russia and China ready to provide anything the US won’t sell to Iran, the mullahs will surely find a way to fill their gas tanks. So that will just leave the poor and middle class to suffer.

For too long Iran and the United States have continued their execrative policy of portraying each other as being inimical.  As such, I am glad that Obama, instead of following Bush’s myopic foreign policy, is reaching out.  Talks on October 1st are a step forward.



Sahar Zubairy

Sahar Zubairy recently graduated from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas- Austin with Masters in Global Policy Studies. She graduated from Texas A&M University with Phi Beta Kappa honors in May 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. In Summer 2008, she was the Southwest Asia/Gulf Intern at the Henry L. Stimson Center, where she researched Iran and the Persian Gulf. She was also a member of a research team that helped develop a website investigating the possible effects of closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by Iran.