To: The Progressive Community
The past few weeks have again shown that the issue of Iran will be front and center in the country's foreign policy dialogue and will play a major role in the upcoming election. Conservatives have likened diplomatic engagement with Iran to appeasement and have instead called for more of the same - increased but still limited sanctions efforts, ineffective sabre rattling and no diplomatic engagement.
We disagree. We believe that the path forward lies through the use of smarter diplomatic strategies and tough-nosed negotiations instead of reliance on overblown rhetoric and threats of war. The American public also believes that this is the best way forward with a new Gallup poll recently showing that 60% of Americans support holding direct talks with Iran.
To maintain that support and ensure a more a productive path for our Iran policy, we must continue to forcefully articulate a principled and pragmatic approach for dealing with Iran. As we continue a rich discussion on what form talks may take, how best to use economic leverage, and what an acceptable outcome may look like, we must consciously articulate shared principles that form the base of a progressive policy towards Iran:
1. The U.S. must develop a coherent and comprehensive security strategy to deal with Iran that addresses key issues including: Iran's uranium enrichment program, the situation in Iraq, and Iran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas. For the past eight years we have pursued an incoherent approach that fails to focus clearly on American interests and does not effectively use all of the tools of power available to us. We need a wholesale reevaluation of our policy, with a clear prioritization of the most important issues, and a plan for what the U.S. could hope to achieve by talking directly with Iran, both in the short and long-term. This strategy must take into account what we can hope to achieve through economic threats and incentives and what role military pressure may play. It must also include collaboration with our Europeans allies, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to achieve our interests. Finally, we must combine engagement with containment and deterrence as we did when we had a comprehensive strategy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
2. The U.S. and Iran should begin talking directly, without preconditions, and pursue a number of confidence building measures. It is absolutely critical that we engage in direct dialogue, without preconditions. Talking and negotiating with unfriendly nations and letting them know exactly where we stand is an important element of diplomacy. It is not the same as making broad concessions without getting anything in return. In fact Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all engaged in at least one round of serious dialogue with Iran and none required preconditions. We must also tone down the "cowboy diplomacy" and regime change rhetoric with the expectation that Iranian counterparts would respond in kind. Moving away from the harshest rhetoric would signal to the Iranians that we are serious about improving relations.
3. The U.S. maintains the capability to strike militarily if it must, but bellicose rhetoric should be set aside. The U.S. military is the most powerful in the world, and the credible threat of force can be a useful tool both in deterring an adversary's behavior and in encouraging cooperation. But that threat does not need to be brandished recklessly at the negotiating table. Needless tough talk empowers Iranian radicals, undermines diplomacy and fosters greater regional instability. Considering the level of American troops and equipment in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, the Iranian government is perfectly aware of the military capabilities of the U.S and its ability to strike.
4. Military action against Iran at this time would likely exact a cost disproportionate to any possible benefit. When making a decision to use military force, we must always ask ourselves what we hope to achieve and what those achievements may cost. Ultimately, air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities (the only viable military option, with U.S. ground forces mired in Iraq) would exact an extraordinarily high cost on the United States. Iran would likely retaliate by fomenting more chaos in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Anti-U.S. sentiment would rise, inhibiting public cooperation ventures with our friends. Also, our intelligence is not sufficient to guarantee that such air strikes would significantly delay Iran's nuclear program, and Iran would likely respond by accelerating its nuclear program. There is not much to be gained from military strikes at this time, but there is much to be lost.
5. Economic levers should continue to be an important tool in our arsenal. The struggling Iranian economy continues to be a tremendously important issue for the Iranian people, making it a valuable point of leverage for the United States. The U.S. should agree to lift certain sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions. As part of such an agreement, the U.S. can offer other incentives, such as closer economic ties, membership in the World Trade Organization or the release of frozen assets. The U.S. should also work with Europe, Russia and China to impose harsher economic measures if the talks fail due to Iranian obstruction. Before starting direct negotiations with Iran, the U.S. should try to secure commitments from the EU and Russia that U.S. direct talks would be reciprocated by more aggressive economic actions should those talks fail. The assurance of multilateral consequences would give the U.S. more leverage in negotiations with Iran.
6. Iran says that it does not want a nuclear weapon. We should do everything possible to both verify that this is the case and prevent Iran from obtaining one. We cannot take the threat of a nuclear Iran lightly, but we should not lose sight of the fact that there is still time for a negotiated solution. The U.S. intelligence community concluded in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran would be unlikely to develop enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon until 2010-2015 and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department judged that this was unlikely until 2013. The NIE also concluded that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but is still enriching uranium under the cover of its civilian program, so that it could restart the weapons program any time. The immediate goal must be to bring Iran under a comprehensive international inspections regime and then work with the Iran towards the elimination of its enrichment program.
7. Comprehensive engagement with Iran must also address Iraq, and should be part of a regional diplomatic strategy that engages all of Iraq's neighbors and tries to stabilize it. Iran will continue to intervene in Iraq. It has serious national interests at stake and must deal with the refugees, violence, crime, economic shocks and all the other consequences of Iraq's instability. The only way to address these issues is to create a dialogue that includes all the regional players. This requires sustained engagement by the U.S. and the international community. The U.S. needs to lay out a comprehensive diplomatic strategy for Iraq's neighbors that relies upon various regional working groups to tackle different issues. One high-level American envoy must be authorized to deal with all of the relevant players.
8. Eliminating Iranian support for terrorism and non-state actors must be a central goal of our policy. Iran continues to wield power and sow chaos throughout the region through its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Taliban in Afghanistan and various proxies in Iraq. American foreign policy should aim to eliminate these activities and we must make clear that they are unacceptable to us. It must be made clear that while we are willing to engage on issues of common interest, a healthy long-term relationship is not possible until Iranian support for these activities ceases.
9. We should work urgently to reduce the risk of an inadvertent conflict with Iran. Given recent incidents in the Persian Gulf and the fact that the United States and Iran have large numbers of military and naval forces in very close proximity, we should be willing to have an open dialogue with Iran to ensure that minor incidents do not escalate. We had similar mechanisms in place with the Soviets during the Cold War; coordination on this issue could also lead to cooperation in other areas.
10. The U.S. needs to work towards new regional security architecture in the Middle East that must include Iran. Considering both the importance of the Middle East's energy supplies and the dramatic structural changes that the region has undergone since the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is important to establish a new stable security infrastructure for the region. We must make the Middle East Process a greater priority. We must find ways to bring others into taking more responsibility for helping stabilize Iraq. Iran, which has benefited greatly from the Iraq War and has seen its influence expand across the region, must inevitably be part of these discussions.