The Middle East Channel

Iran negotiations have been a force multiplier

Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen stressed the need for the U.S. to maintain open channels of communication with the government of Iran.

"Even in the darkest days of the Cold War," Mullen said, "we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other." Asked whether he was "specifically talking about military to military contact, or a broader set of engagement between the two countries," Mullen replied, "I'm talking about any channel that's open. We've not had a direct link of communication with Iran since 1979...Any channel would be terrific."

While President Obama made talking to Iran a central element of his foreign policy agenda upon taking office, no one expected that it would be easy. Over the last three years, Iran's leaders have done nothing to change that pessimism. Always skeptical of the prospect of negotiating with Iran, U.S. conservatives have criticized President Obama's engagement policy from the start. Most recently, in his first big foreign policy address last Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry scolded President Obama for "wasting precious time on a naïve policy of outreach" to Iran.

Even some early supporters of Obama's engagement policy have lost hope. In a New York Times op-ed this summer, the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: "Washington must appreciate that it is locked in a prolonged struggle for regional influence with one of its least predictable foes." In order to prevail in this conflict, the authors continued, "Washington must abandon any expectation that Tehran can be seduced or coerced to the negotiating table."  

These sentiments are understandable. Almost two years have passed since the U.S. last held direct face-to-face talks with Iran in Vienna, a meeting which appeared to produce a deal in which Iran would transfer 75 percent of its Low Enriched Uranium stock for conversion to nuclear fuel. Brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with the backing of Russia and France, and supported by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the deal soon fell apart after the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei rejected it, and was therefore abandoned. Iran has still not suspended its uranium enrichment program, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696.

But while negotiations with Iran have not yet achieved their primary goal -- a solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program -- they have not been without important benefits.

Since President Obama agreed to talk directly to Iran almost three years ago, he has done more to isolate the Iranian government than President George W. Bush did in eight years in office. By engaging with the Islamic Republic, President Obama called its leaders' bluff. The Iranian government could no longer say that the U.S. is only interested in threatening and attacking Iran. Much to the disappointment of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, President Obama recognized the Islamic Republic and its leaders, and the U.S. government sat down and talked to their representatives.

While the P5+1 did not manage to convince the Iranian government to transfer 75 percent of Low Enriched Uranium in Vienna, the Obama administration's willingness to talk to Iran -- and Iran's refusal to make a deal -- enabled the U.S. to show the world (and, importantly, Iranians themselves) that it was Iran's leaders who were the impediment to reaching a deal. This move also brought Russia and China closer to the position of the U.S., as well as other partners who believed that tougher sanctions needed to be imposed on the Iranian government. The recent news that China has scaled back its investment in Iran's gas and oil sector should be particularly worrisome for Iran's leaders.

Obama's outstretched hand also made an impact on Iran's domestic politics. According to Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, Obama's efforts to engage helped power the Green movement's challenge to the regime. "Obama offered a dialog with the Iran," Ganji said, "and this change in discourse immediately gave rise to that outpouring of sentiment against the Islamic Republic" after June 2009's disputed presidential election. Similarly, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi said that, by showing a willingness to engage with Iran, Obama showed Iranians and the world "that it is the Iranian regime that doesn't want to talk." The specter of American hostility is a treasured propaganda tool of the Iranian regime. By engaging, President Obama denied them the use of this tool.

Negotiations with Iran have also done much to boost the credibility of the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 at the expense of the Iranian government. This was demonstrated after the revelation by the U.S. of a secret enrichment site in Fordo, in Central Iran. Had this revelation been made during the Bush era, it would have likely been met with considerably more skepticism. This time, however, the international community was much more receptive, precisely because of Obama's effort to reach out to the Iranian government. So was the IAEA, whose head at the time -- Mohammad El Baradei -- investigated the revelation and declared that Iran had operated on "the wrong side of the law".

Perhaps the biggest achievement of negotiations to date has been their facilitation of the imposition of tough international sanctions against the Iranian government and its nuclear program. As a recent IAEA report revealed, these sanctions have been instrumental in slowing the progress of the Iranian program. This view is now shared by former Israeli defense officials such as Gabi Ashkenazi, who in a speech at the Brookings Institution stated that sanctions were the best course of action against Iran. Meanwhile, in a recent visit to the IAEA, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor acknowledged that sanctions against Iran could work. Another Israeli security official, speaking on background in an interview with the authors, said that, while Israelis initially "were skeptical about a possible positive outcome of the negotiations" in respect to the nuclear issue, "we recognize that they contributed to building international consensus." The fact that such statements are being made by officials of a country skeptical of sanctions speaks volumes.

In short, far from being evidence of "naiveté," President Obama's engagement policy has served as an important force multiplier for efforts to pressure the Iranian government. Rather than "validating the mullahs," as former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty charged, Obama's policy has in fact further isolated them. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared at the United Nations last week politically diminished, and representing a regime that is more weakened and alone than it has been in years. And Ahmadinejad's ridiculous, conspiracy theory-laden speech to the UN General Assembly effectively killed whatever goodwill might have been generated by Iran's release of American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal two days earlier.

As the P5+1 continues to confront the challenges of Iran's nuclear program, it must also continue to use direct negotiations as its major tool. While experience supports a degree of pessimism about the prospects for a negotiated solution, abandoning the offer of talks with Iran would be the wrong move. Indeed, this would in fact relieve Iran's leaders of pressure. We lose nothing by this -- while we talk, Iran enriches. While we don't talk, Iran enriches. In addition to avoiding the sort of accidental flare-ups of which Adm. Mullen warned, keeping the door of negotiations open, while maintaining targeted sanctions, will keep open the space for Iran's leaders to compromise, and keep alive the chances of reaching the best possible scenario for the international community: finding a peaceful solution to Iran's nuclear program. True naiveté is believing that the problem can be adequately addressed through mere rhetorical bluster and threats of force, and continuing to shout at Iran across a chasm as the U.S. has done for the last 30 years.

Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran" and teaches the "Contemporary Iranian Politics" course at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. Matthew Duss is a National Security Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.

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The Middle East Channel

September 23, 2011: A historic day for Israel-Palestine?

Ethan Frome

Cynicism and skepticism always have their place, but today might just go down as an historic day on the Israeli-Palestinian front. No, there is no direct or quick fix move from the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the actual realization of a Palestinian state (and certainly not when one factors in the Israeli response) but the Palestinian U.N. move does represent the most definitive break yet with the failed and structurally flawed strategies for advancing peace of many a year. Many Palestinians and others are now suggesting that the PLO leadership progress from the symbolism of September 23rd to a concerted struggle for their freedom centered on nonviolent resistance, diplomacy, and international legality, believing that this would finally deliver a breakthrough.

In its theatrics, today was rather predictable -- other than the Quartet statement of the afternoon, on which more in a moment. The speeches of Abbas and Netanyahu held few, if any, surprises. Abbas played to the Palestinian community at home and around the world, and to the rest of the international community.

Abbas spoke to the refugee experience, including his own, while leaving wiggle room for a future solution and embracing the Arab Peace Initiative on this score. He clarified that the PLO would continue to represent all Palestinians until all issues are definitively resolved, urged that this not become a religious struggle (pushing back on Netanyahu's attempt to make this about a Jewish state), and linked the Palestinian struggle for rights to the so-called Arab Spring, albeit something that will have to be born out in reality beyond the made-for-TV pictures from Ramallah's town square.

Abbas could also not have been more explicit on this being a Palestine alongside Israel, on the 67 lines, on only 22% of Mandatory Palestine -- and thus calling the lie on Netanyahu's claim that Abbas wants to have a state that would come at Israel's expense, replacing Israel.

Netanyahu was playing to the Israeli public and to the American and Jewish right. His speech represented a doubling down of the porcupine strategy that guides his government's policy. He told the world body that its Security Council was being presided over by terrorists and posed as the champion of the "Clash of Civilizations" narrative. In reminding his audience of the sacrifices entailed by Israel's withdrawal from Gaza six years ago, he somehow overlooked the fact that this was a withdrawal that he himself vociferously opposed. In referring several times to Israel's peace with Egypt, Netanyahu may have left some reminiscing that in that agreement Israel withdrew to the last centimeter of the 67 lines, removed every settler and IDF position, and entrusted security to an international force -- the MFO.

In response to their respective speeches, Abbas received overwhelming applause from the delegates in the GA hall while Netanyahu's support came only from his own delegation and from the peanut gallery -- perhaps that was filled with a U.S. congressional delegation on a daytrip to the U.N.!

As attention shifts away from Turtle Bay, one should look to at least three arenas for what happens next.

First, What next at the U.N.? Do the Palestinians also go to the General Assembly in the coming days and weeks -- especially when their move is visibly stuck in committee at the Security Council? Pressure is likely to grow on Abbas to make that move and the lead option might become to re-cast the Sarkozy speech into a General Assembly initiative with European and Arab support. Doing so would give the Palestinians a concrete achievement, constituting an upgrade to non-member state while receiving an overwhelming General Assembly majority as things slowly progressed at the Security Council.

Second, what happens on the ground? Mass nonviolent popular protests? Do settlers provoke, is there violence, what will be the IDF response. Will Palestinians really join the "Arab Spring"?

Third, how does the government of Israel respond? Do they take punitive measures against the PA as some ministers -- led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- have threatened, including withholding Palestinian tax revenues? This would be hugely counter-productive of course and ultimately hurt Israel more than the Palestinians. But that Israel might nonetheless do this speaks to the excesses of Netanyahu-led government and its crass political and tactical calculations.

Finally, what of that Quartet statement hurriedly put together and released just hours after the two leaders' speeches had surely rendered it dead on arrival.

After over two months of trying and in a week in which Israel-Palestine has dominated the global agenda, the Quartet belatedly showed signs of life in releasing a statement. But that statement was perhaps more noteworthy for what was omitted than for what was codified. Since President Obama's two speeches in May, the Quartet, notably in a principals meeting in July - and then for much of this week in New York - has been attempting to reach language on proposed parameters for a two-state solution that would then be presented to the parties and to the world. That consensus could not be reached.

The Europeans, alongside the Russians and the envoy of the U.N. Secretary General, adhered more closely to parameters that have previously been discussed as well as to certain principles of international law (in particular, not koshering the settlements post-facto). At the same time, the US administration sought to further move the goal posts for a two-state deal in the direction of the Netanyahu government's comfort zone -- a place faraway from any reasonable two-state outcome. The Palestinians can be relieved that the drafts prepared between Jerusalem and Washington did not prevail.

Instead, the Quartet presented what was largely a reiteration of existing positions and a limited procedural agenda and timetable to promote negotiations and an agreement. The Quartet's apparent continued faith in the idea that negotiations between the parties can be fruitful and that trust can be built seems ever-more detached from reality. More extensive heavy-lifting will be needed by the international community if a realistic basis is to be created for any future direct-negotiations. Notably they would have to address the asymmetry that exists between the parties and the Israeli sense of impunity for maintaining and entrenching a status quo of occupation.

There were, nonetheless, a few features of this Quartet statement worthy of comment:

  • The Quartet called on the parties to present comprehensive proposals for territory and security in three months. This represents a more forward-leaning and conscious effort to pursue the logic initially outlined by President Obama on May 19 for making progress (borders and security first). It is perhaps the only really new element; however it appears that the Quartet are willing to sacrifice that somewhat novel approach to a breakthrough on peace on the altar of loyalty to direct negotiations. If the parties cannot overcome that trust gap (and the language of the Quartet statements suggests that some Quartet members at least doubt it) then why not have the parties submit their proposals on territory and security to the Quartet -- that might be a more serious approach.
  • Any explicit reference to settlements is conspicuous in its absence. One has to carry a peace-process dictionary to understand that the reference in point five to "provocative actions and Roadmap obligations" is in large measure a way of saying settlements. It is a reflection of how ineffectual the Quartet is likely to continue to be, that we have reached a stage where they cannot explicitly reference a settlement freeze. International legality be damned. For the Palestinians, the absence of settlement freeze language and the absence of clear terms of reference, as they had requested, will be a hard swallow (albeit the terms of reference they would have got would have constituted an even harder swallow).
  • In an atmosphere in which Congress is threatening aid to the Palestinians in retaliation for their UN approach, and in which members of the Israeli cabinet are doing likewise with regard to the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, it is noteworthy that the statement spends two paragraphs acknowledging the institution-building achievements of the PA and calling for a PA donors conference. On this, there is consensus: dramatically shaking up the status quo by taking the kinds of steps that would precipitate the PA's collapse would then put the international community in an uncomfortable situation. It is also a reflection of the understanding that while the PA provides an element of self-government as well as employment and services to the Palestinians, it is ultimately a mechanism that is hugely convenient for Israel, in shouldering the direct burden of managing the occupation. It is easier for the US to defend something that is so clearly in Israel's interest.
  • The Quartet is potentially given a greater role in overseeing this effort, which may be an acknowledgement of America's inability to lead given its domestic political realities, or maybe that just helped grease the wheels for the rest of the Quartet to go on this journey.
  • The idea of holding a future peace conference in Moscow conference -- long buried --makes a reappearance. This apparently helped seal Russian approval for issuing a Quartet statement as the Russians had been something of a holdout during the ongoing talks.
  • Finally, there was no consensus position in relation to today's Palestinian application for U.N. membership -- and that is an issue that one imagines that the Quartet and much of the Security Council, not least the U.S., would be happy to avoid voting on any time soon.

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