News on the Iran front is getting more and more complicated. I am not referring to the situation at Iran’s nuclear facilities but to the one here in Washington, where Congress, deep into election-year fundraising and thinking about the March AIPAC policy conference, is crafting yet another sanctions bill. There is no reason to go into the details. But suffice it to say, this new set of sanctions, like the rest, will primarily hurt ordinary Iranians, not the government. As one Iranian citizen, writing under a pseudonym, described the situation this week in the New York Daily News:
These days, ordinary Iranians like my mother are becoming increasingly aware of a new economic reality in their lives. Sanctions already in place have plunged the country’s economy into a crisis; more robust sanctions that will be enacted come spring on our financial system and oil trade will cause even more pain for an already-suffering populace.
Isn’t life in Iran difficult enough under the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Why punish ordinary people more?
Did we punish the Poles or the Bulgarians for living under communism? Did we punish the people of the Soviet Union because their government had a nuclear arsenal primed to destroy us? No. In fact, we gave the people of those countries food. As President Richard Nixon (like President Ronald Reagan later) liked to remind us, our adversary was the leadership of the Soviet Union, not the average citizens in the different Soviet republics.
But that is not how we have been approaching the Iran. Not by a long shot.
In A Single Roll of the Dice, a comprehensive new book about U.S.-Iran relations since President Obama came to office, Iran expert Trita Parsi examines the effect that the purely punitive approach (i.e., sanctions) can have on changing the Iranian government’s behavior.
Specifically, Parsi points out that “sanctions have become an alternative to policy” rather than an instrument of policy. He explains that “if diplomacy is pursued again” it must be “for the sake of resolving the conflict, not for the sake of creating an impetus for more sanctions.”
Abandoning a sole reliance on sanctions is Parsi’s first of six recommendations for establishing a diplomacy track with Iran that will succeed.
The second is “do not put unnecessary limitations on U.S. diplomats.” Diplomats should not be limited to one official channel but should engage in dialogue with the multiple power centers that exist throughout the country.
If direct engagement with these political centers and factions is not immediately possible, negotiators must be willing to give them time so as to neutralize these stakeholders’ inclinations to scuttle a deal of which they were not a part. Pressuring Iran’s fractured political system to give a quick “yes” usually results instead in “no.”
Unfortunately, Parsi’s advice on this score has already been contradicted in the recently passed AIPAC-drafted sanctions law, which not only circumscribes a diplomat’s ability to talk to Iranians but forbids any diplomacy without advance approval by congressional committees. (This patently unconstitutional provision is unlikely to withstand court challenge, although AIPAC certainly won’t bless such a challenge.)
Third, he says, the U.S. and its allies should accept that Iran will not abandon all enrichment of uranium, especially at levels that are necessary for medical reasons (radioactive isotopes) but are too low for use for weapons. Iran is already enriching uranium, so that train has already left the station. In fact, the United States has already accepted Iranian enrichment, but is under pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to hold the line against any enrichment. Parsi writes:
At this stage the only feasible negotiations are those regarding how enrichment in Iran can be inspected, verified, limited and controlled.
Fourth, diplomacy cannot be limited solely to the nuclear issue but should also include the human rights situation:
A healthy, sustainable relationship with Iran cannot be built if the current reservoir of American soft power among the Iranian population is squandered for the sake of a nuclear deal. Just as Iranians’ respect and admiration for American achievements, values and culture would be jeopardized in the event of a military attack on Iran, silence on human rights will also likewise deplete this crucial strategic asset.
Fifth, take advantage of our NATO ally Turkey’s relationship with Iran:
While Washington has been uncomfortable with Turkey’s perceived leniency toward Iran, it has overlooked how Turkey’s maneuvering has checked Iran’s attempts to fill the vacuum caused by America’s decline in the region. ... Instead of treating Turkey’s approach with suspicion, Washington and the EU should utilize Turkey’s ability to elicit Iranian cooperation.
Finally, “Washington must play the long game, with a focus on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran and the dangers of noncommunication.”
This is not a radical idea as is evidenced by the message delivered by Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said last year, “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it is virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be a miscalculation which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”
All the recommendations on Parsi’s list can be summed up in one word: Talk.
I’ll add my own recommendation to the list: Do not back down when AIPAC barks or directs its congressional cutouts to scream bloody murder every time it suspects that the U.S. is considering diplomacy with Iran.
I remember from my days at AIPAC that the thing it was most afraid of was that a president would break with the policy it dictated and explain to the American people why. As the former (and most effective) executive director of AIPAC, Thomas Dine, often said to me, “If the president takes to the airwaves and explains why his position is in the U.S. interest and the position we are pushing isn’t, it will be us who folds, not him.”
I have only highlighted one section of Parsi’s book, but the rest is just as smart and incisive. To date, it is the best book there is on U.S.-Iranian relations in 2012. Warhawks in Iran and Israel and neocons in Washington won’t like this book (they will find Parsi’s propensity for dividing blame among Iran, the United States and Israel maddening) but, for the rest of us, it provides just what we need — a well-written history of how we got to the brink of war with Iran and how we can still avoid it. I hope President Obama reads it; I have no doubt that he agrees with Parsi that diplomacy, not more pain and killing, is the answer to the looming threat of war.