With the new National Intelligence Estimate reaffirming that Iran does not pose an imminent threat to the US, we have an opportunity to focus on a critical question: what does effective diplomacy with Iran look like? The Bush administration has misleadingly said that diplomacy with Iran has failed when in reality they have not attempted anything close to productive diplomatic engagement.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, both former staffers at the National Security Council, have been campaigning against military engagement with Iran and issuing warnings about the Bush administration’s intentions for some time now. They recently published an OpEd in the New York Times that offers some helpful guidelines for engaging Iran:
From an Iranian perspective, serious engagement would start with American willingness to recognize Tehran’s legitimate security and regional interests as part of an overall settlement of our differences. But neither Republicans nor Democrats have been willing to consider such an approach, because of the pursuit of a nuclear weapons option and support for terrorist organizations that Iran employs to defend what it sees as its fundamental security interests. Successful United States-Iran engagement requires cutting through this Gordian knot by undertaking comprehensive diplomacy encompassing the core concerns of both sides.
From the American side, any new approach must address Iran’s security by clarifying that Washington is not seeking regime change in Tehran, but rather changes in the Iranian government’s behavior. (While Secretary Rice has said recently that overthrowing the mullahs is not United States policy, President Bush has pointedly refused to affirm her statements.) To that end, the United States should be prepared to put a few assurances on the table.
First, as part of an understanding addressing all issues of concern to the two parties, Washington would promise that it would not use force to change Iran’s borders or form of government. (This would be a big shift: before the Bush administration signed on to a European-drafted incentives "package" for multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear activities last spring, it insisted that all language addressing Iran’s security interests be removed.)
Next, assuming that American concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities, provision of military equipment and training to terrorist organizations, and opposition to a negotiated Arab-Israeli settlement were satisfactorily addressed, Washington would also pledge to end unilateral sanctions against Iran, re-establish diplomatic relations and terminate Tehran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.
We must encourage our members of Congress and other opinion leaders to do as the Leveretts have done and seize this opportunity to promote diplomacy with Iran. The more momentum we can build behind this idea now, the more the next president will have a public mandate to start the process of engaging Iran.