National Security

Obama urged to step up diplomacy on Iran


A growing chorus of national security experts from across the political spectrum is urging President Obama to pursue bolder diplomacy with Iran, including offering Iran a nuclear deal that would include sanctions relief.

“We know Iran is prepared to make a deal on 20% enrichment,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran advisor, said at a Brookings Institution foreign policy panel Thursday. “It’s low-hanging fruit. … Now is the time to get that deal.”

But getting it, she adds, will require President Obama to “elevate and intensify the diplomatic dialogue,” as well as offer some sanctions relief.

“The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date, and at least as inventive as the sanctions themselves have proven,“ Maloney wrote in a “memo to the president” published Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

The calls on President Obama to boost his Iran diplomatic game come at a paradoxical moment: Iran diplomacy is stuck, but a deal is in sight. There’s increasingly broad consensus on the terms of an interim nuclear deal that many observers believe could be had. And the recently reelected US president, enjoying higher approval numbers going into his second term than throughout much of his first, is widely perceived to have the political space to offer more carrots if it would clinch a deal.

The uncertainty is Iran. Western negotiators are discouraged by the recent difficulty in getting Iran to even agree on the date and venue for resumed nuclear talks with the P5+1. Though consultations continue, no agreement on a new meeting date had been firmed up as of Thursday, American and European diplomats said.

“Tehran was asking [the] P5+1 about their new package prior to meeting,” former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian told the Back Channel Thursday. The “P5+1 was not ready to reveal [it] before the meeting. Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail and as always Tehran would be blamed.”

Perhaps defensive about their perceived stalling on new talks, Iranian officials signaled they were trying to set the agenda for the new meeting. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Barbara Slavin reported for Al-Monitor Jan. 14th.

“I think we sometimes read too much into Iranian foot dragging,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Back Channel. “Anyone who’s spent time in Tehran traffic or dealt with Iranian government agencies knows that efficiency and promptness are in short supply, especially on such a sensitive issue in which there may not exist an internal consensus.”

Reflecting the discouragement of American officials at the delay, he added: “When interested parties can’t agree on a date or location for a negotiation, it doesn’t portend well for the negotiation itself.”

That familiar and frustrating dynamic is in part what is driving a growing number of diplomats and policy analysts to urge Obama to take a less politically cautious approach, by signaling Iran that the United States is prepared to sweeten the deal, in return for greater Iranian transparency and inspections.

Two dozen former diplomats and experts, including former ambassadors Tom Pickering and James Dobbins, urged Obama “to direct your team vigorously to pursue serious, sustained negotiations with the Iranian government on an arrangement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran,” in a Dec. 20th letter, organized by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association.

“Iran has insisted on two benefits from a deal: sanctions relief and nuclear enrichment,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at The Atlantic this week. “An agreement is more likely if these issues are addressed with a generous offer.”

(One risk of offering Iran a more generous deal, Clawson acknowledges, is that if Iran rejects it, it would increase the pressure on the U.S. to “close the window for diplomacy” and move towards military confrontation. That scenario would provide clarity, however, that could be useful if the US seeks to prepare a diplomatic coalition in the event talks fail, argue some proponents, including Clawson and former White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross.)

Columbia University scholar Robert Jervis, writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, argues that in order for the US to achieve its twin goals of preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear bomb while avoiding military action, it will need to “up its game and take an unusually smart and bold approach to negotiations.”

To shake up the kabuki quality of the recent rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran, involving “little more than recitations of unyielding opening positions,” Jervis proposes two scenarios that might get the Supreme Leader’s attention.

“A dramatic (if unlikely) approach would be for the United States to unilaterally suspend some of its sanctions against Iran, halt all its military preparations related to Iran, or declare that the option of using force is no longer on the table,” Jervis writes. ”A more plausible scenario would be for U.S. leaders to try to communicate that they are ready for an agreement by letting the Iranian regime know that they are studying how to suspend sanctions in stages and developing various forms of security guarantees.”

The United States and Europe have been very effective at implementing draconian sanctions on Iran, in order to create leverage in negotiations. The hitch is that Washington’s “unwillingness to use that leverage as a bargaining chip has turned sanctions into a blunt instrument causing minimal change to Tehran’s strategic calculus-but maximum pain to innocent Iranians,” former State Department Iran analyst Reza Marashi wrote in the National Interest January 4th.

Joining the American analysts, a group of seven former Iranian reformist parliamentarians, now living in exile, called in an open letter this week for direct US-Iran negotiations and broader concessions from both sides to achieve a nuclear compromise.

“We are trying to encourage [the P5+1] to give Iran a new package,” Seyed Aliakbar Mousavi, one of the signers, who left Iran after the disputed 2009 presidential elections and now resides in the United States, told the Back Channel in an interview this week. A more generous package, he said, would increase the likelihood Iran would say yes, thus reducing the prospect for military confrontation.

With Iran heading into presidential elections in June, a new Iran cabinet will not be seated until September, Mousavi said. That boosts the importance of trying to secure an interim deal by the spring, he said.