Saturday, January 17, 2009

Iran, Iran, Iran

Three of the most pressing national security problems facing the Obama administration - nuclear proliferation, the war in Iraq and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan - have one thing in common: Iran.

All three challenges are, in principle, amenable to diplomatic solution, but only if we give it a try. Success on any of the three will not be possible without serious engagement with Iran.

We propose coordinating and integrating policies on these three security challenges with a regional diplomatic strategy that includes Iran.

The United States should seek to open talks with Iran without preconditions. On the nuclear dispute, we propose that the United States and its European allies present a plan for Iran's current uranium enrichment program to be reorganized as a multinationally owned, operated, and managed program with enhanced international monitoring and verification.

Sanctions and threats have failed to force Iran to abandon its enrichment program and by themselves are unlikely to do so even with Iran's recent economic problems.
Iran has expanded its centrifuges from none to roughly 5,000 over the past three years of UN Security Council sanctions. To believe that a proud country like Iran is simply going to dismantle all its centrifuges is wishful - and ultimately dangerous - thinking.

Agreement on the multinational enrichment option would lead to greater assurance about Iran's nuclear activities, and it would open the door to serious discussions with Iran on other issues of great importance to the U.S.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, direct U.S. engagement with Iran and other key regional and international players, including the United Nations, will be necessary if the United States hopes to draw down its forces and bring stability to these war-torn nations.

This process must be truly multinational and cannot be seen as another, purely American initiative.

Diplomatic discussions must focus on support for Iraq's territorial integrity; national reconciliation; ending military support for non-state groups in Iraq and Afghanistan; the resettlement of millions of refugees; and the establishment of confidence-building measures that include Iran's neighbors.

Achieving serious commitments from the relevant governments will not be easy and will take time, but such an approach will be essential to provide stability as U.S. troops are drawn down. No such regional arrangement is possible, however, without the inclusion of Iran.

Preparing the ground for negotiations with Iran on these critical issues will take time and patience. This process could include a series of steps such as changing the tone of public discourse, working to build confidence that a new, positive approach has been adopted and establishing direct, official contacts with Tehran to explore reciprocal actions and responses while working to avoid misunderstandings.

More formal direct negotiations with Iran should then begin late this summer following the Iranian elections with whomever is elected president of Iran.

As General David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, recently observed, Iran has many common interests with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both the United States and Iran support the Iraqi and Afghan central governments, seek to establish stability, oppose Sunni terrorists such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, want to reduce drug trafficking, and, perhaps most importantly, need to prevent these countries from descending into chaos and civil war.

Of course, there are issues on which Washington and Tehran disagree, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and human rights. But treating Iran as a donkey that must be dealt with carrots and sticks is unlikely to work.

It is time to begin dealing with Iran as a serious, proud and influential nation with a deep culture and history, one whose common interests with the U.S. and other countries in the region should be recognized and acted on before events make success impossible.

William Luers is president of the UN Association-USA. Thomas R. Pickering is a former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. Jim Walsh is a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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