The big story from Hillary Clinton’s Senate confirmation hearings yesterday is her affirmation of President-elect Obama’s intention to seek to engage more actively with Iran. As the Washington Post reports, this signals “a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy from the Bush administration.”
On Iran, the Bush administration has pursued a carefully calibrated effort that held out the prospect of economic and political incentives if Iran agreed to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons. Bush permitted ambassador-level diplomats to meet with Iranian counterparts but insisted that more substantive discussions not occur unless Iran first changed its behavior.
Clinton said flatly yesterday that Bush’s effort has “not worked” and that President-elect Barack Obama’s team is “very open to looking to a positive, effective way of engaging with Iran.” She acknowledged that the effort represents a gamble and insisted that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable to Obama, but she added: “We won’t know what we’re capable of achieving until we’re actually there working on it.”
Over the last year, it’s been interesting to watch as the idea of engagement with Iran without preconditions has gone from a “naive and irresponsible,” as Clinton herself put it during the Democratic primary, to “conventional wisdom” in Washington, having been endorsed in September by five former secretaries of state. Importantly, this shift has occurred over the invariably condescending objections of the same hardline conservative fantasists whose crackpot ideas for transforming the Middle East only succeeded in boosting Iran’s regional influence.
Just in time, the Rand Corporation has produced a new study entitled Understanding Iran. One of its key recommendations, in my view, is the idea that the U.S. “must overcome the mystique of talking with Iran while managing its expectations and being mindful of unique Iranian negotiating attributes.”
The U.S. approach to Iran is defined by a peculiar form of mystique that defies America’s history of engaging other international actors of varying shades of enmity (for example, North Korea, Serbs, and Somali warlords). This aversion to talking to Iran has squandered several opportunities to reduce tension — in 2001, on the margins of the Bonn talks on Afghanistan, and in 2003, on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In these cases, Iran came to the table because of gratitude and fear, two motives that are largely absent today, replaced by a strategic confidence and the perception of diminished U.S. credibility and maneuverability.
There is value in negotiating with Iran, even if the likelihood for a breakthrough is distant. First, negotiations broaden U.S. contacts inside the regime and produce more information about its processes, both of which might generate unexpected openings for influence later. Second, negotiations reduce misunderstandings that can escalate into conflict. Third, negotiations can help de-mystify the Islamic Republic, reducing the U.S. tendency to treat it as an exceptional and abnormal actor in the international system.
The Center for American Progress has long advocated stronger engagement with Iran as a way to better gauge its intentions and change its behavior, especially in the realm of its nuclear program. In February 2007, the Center released Contain and Engage, by Joe Cirincione and Andy Grotto. Recognizing the the failure of the Bush administration’s approach — which has resulted in a more powerful and more deeply entrenched regime — Cirincione and Grotto advised coupling “the pressures created by sanctions, diplomatic isolation and investment freezes with practical compromises and realizable security assurances to encourage Iran onto a verifiable, non-nuclear weapons path, rather than pursuing the faint hope that the organization of coercive measures will force Iran’s capitulation.”