"For too long, U.S. policy toward Iran has been mostly about tactics and too little about strategy. It's time to play chess not checkers." This finding, from a new report from the prestigious Atlantic Council, comes as nuclear talks with Iran resume this week in Almaty, Kazakhstan.* There is reason for cautious optimism, but there is also a chance that the negotiations will fail as they have before. The timeframe to peacefully address Iran's nuclear program is narrowing, so U.S. strategy in the next months is critical.
The fate of Iran and its nuclear program will have "lasting regional and global consequences," says the report. So it's important that the U.S. gets it right. The report offers a comprehensive, long-term strategy towards Iran that would serve the administration well. Several key recommendations are worth noting:
The Obama administration should lay out a step-by-step reciprocal and proportionate plan that ends with graduated relief of sanctions on oil, and eventually on the Iranian Central Bank, in return for verifiable curbs on Iranian uranium enrichment and stocks of enriched uranium, and assurances that Iran does not have undeclared nuclear materials and facilities... The U.S. government and its allies should prepare a roadmap to be used in negotiations, for gradually removing sanctions as concrete agreements are reached. To make meaningful concessions, Iran needs to see off-ramps and an endgame.
Full disclosure: I am a member of the task force, as is former Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Jim Cartwright and former CIA Director Michael Hayden. We believe it is also important that the U.S. show the Iranian people that it (and the international community) does not blame them for the regime's actions. The U.S. Treasury, we say in the report, should designate a small number of U.S. and private Iranian financial institutions to facilitate trade in food and medicine and monetary transfers that allow Iranian students to continue to study in the U.S. -- as nearly 7,000 did last year. By identifying specific channels for U.S. aid, it will be harder for the Iranian government to blame sanctions for its failure to take care of its people.
The United States also needs to work harder to weaken Iran's ability to work against US interests and those of its allies in the Middle East. President Obama's recent trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan was an important step forward that will hopefully be followed by renewed efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Even though Iran has interfered in Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, there is still a possibility for engaging Tehran over Afghanistan. In 2001, Iran helped the United States overthrow the Taliban and install the Karzai government. Tehran may see a benefit in becoming part of the solution to Afghanistan's continuing problems, which have spilled over into Iran in the form of militant attacks, narcotic drugs and refugees.
"Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state," says Atlantic Council President Fred Kempe, "is the most significant, immediate foreign policy challenge of President Barack Obama's second term -- one whose outcome will have lasting regional and global consequences."
I completely agree.
* The report, "Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy on Iran," is by the Atlantic Council's Iran Task Force whose members include: Odeh Aburene, Michael Adler, James Cartwright, Joe Cirincione, Michael V. Hayden, Trita Parsi, Thomas R. Pickering, William Reinsch, Richard Sawaya, Greg Thielmann, and Harlan Ullman. Former Senator Chuck Hagel and Amb. Stuart Eizenstat chaired the Task Force. Barbara Slavin was the report's principle author and it was produced under the direction of the Atlantic Council South Asian Director Shuja Nawaz.