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A European Perspective on Iran

July 16, 2008

Washington D.C. – The Bush Administration announced on Wednesday that it will send Ambassador William Burns, Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs and the White House specialist on Iran, as an observer to the talks that will take place between Iranian officials and the representatives of the P5 plus 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) in Geneva, Switzerland, on July 19th. Moreover, on Thursday, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that the US Government plans to return its diplomats to Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution and that it might staff a US interest section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran beginning next month.

In order to continue promoting dialogue, the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. hosted Wednesday an event organized by the Stanley Foundation, bringing to the US capital two European experts, Riccardo Redaelli of Italy and Anoush Ehteshami of Great Britain. They outlined the European argument in favor of engagement with Iran and advocated the need for Washington to open up a diplomatic channel with Teheran.

Director of the Middle East program at the Landau Network – Istituto Volta, a think tank based outside of Milan, Mr. Redaelli emphasized the complexities of the Iranian constitutional, political and cultural systems, and argued the need for an elaborate policy in dealing with Teheran. Although the Iranian political elite appears to be fragmented and as having contradictory goals, especially as it tries to integrate an agenda for the promotion of a pan-Islamist ideal, while protecting its own identity as a Shiite Persian state and trying to secure its strategic national interest, it certainly doesn’t have “suicidal tendencies.” The main goal of the leadership in Teheran is, Redaelli said, “to guarantee the survival of the regime and as such it should be viewed as quite rational.”

A Western tendency toward the demonization of Iran is, according to the Italian researcher, at the roots of dangerous misinterpretations of the Islamic Republic. Western observers often over-simplify the Iranian political system and lack a real understanding of the delicate dynamics at play between the elected and un-elected institutions in Teheran. Furthermore, Mr. Redaelli believes that the labels normally used to explain the politics of Iran, such as the reformists, the pragmatists, the conservatives, fail to grasp the true essence of the regime and instead “they are very useful only not to understand Iran,” Mr. Redaelli said on Wednesday.

As a result of these misunderstandings, those in Iran who have always opposed engagement with the West are succeeding in what Redaelli called “the securization of all aspects of Iran’s foreign policy.” Teheran’s paranoia with its own isolation has become an important driver of its decision-making process. President Ahmadinejad has risen and held on to power, despite a fairly poor performance, thanks to the people’s fears. “He is able to exploit the atmosphere of isolation we have created,” highlighted Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Director of the Department of Political Sciences and International Affairs at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom.

“This is the time to speak to Iran,” Riccardo Redaelli advocated at the Stimson Center. It is precisely in a time of troubles that diplomacy becomes the most useful tool. After all, the other various policy alternatives have been already tried out at some point, echoed Mr. Ehteshami; “Washington first decided to ignore Iran, but that didn’t work, then it tried containment but in the long run containment ended up turning against Washington,” he continued. “Confrontation has been in the mix for a while,” he added, noting that preparing for a conflict would be too long and too costly for both Iran and the United States. “Overtime the policy options have been reduced to no-policy at all,” Mr. Ehteshami pointed out, concluding that engagement is the only alternative left.

Despite an apparent willingness on all sides to try talking to one another, deep mistrust remains and the moment where a “grand bargain” could be discussed hasn’t yet been reached. The parties should focus on developing a minimal agenda of a limited set of issues with the goal of building mutual trust, a plan which Mr. Redaelli called “selective engagement.” Among the areas that could be approached, he suggested the fight against drug smuggling from Central Asia, on which Teheran has already proved willing to cooperate, and the opening of a US consulate in Iran to ease and quicken the processing of visa applications. Finally, it is important that an agenda of regime change is taken off the table by Washington; otherwise the Iranians will never agree to talk. “If you want to engage them, they might be interested, but if you want to keep them in a corner until their current political system crumbles, they won’t accept that,” Mr. Redaelli warned.

Despite the opening on the part of the US Administration and the EU continued support for negotiations, Congress maintains an aggressive posture, focusing on an agenda of punitive measures. On July 15th, Senators Dodd (D-CT) and Shelby (R-AL) announced that they will introduce a bipartisan proposal for the expansion of the Iran Sanctions Act, entitled the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2008. Simultaneously Congress is considering the draft of a resolution that would empower the Administration to enforce sanctions at all costs, a measure that many believe could lead to war with Iran. H. Con. Res. 362 e S. Res. 580, respectively at the House and the Senate, grant the Executive the authority to pursue the isolation of Iran via a naval blockade, which in military terms is considered an act of war.

“Not even during the Cuban Missile Crisis did President Kennedy order a naval blockade against the Soviets. Instead he called it ‘naval quarantine’ to try avoiding war,” Doctor Lawrence Korb told Washington Prism in a phone interview on Wednesday. Dr. Korb is former Assistant Secretary of Defense, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and one of the three co-signatories of a letter urging lawmakers to abandon the resolution. Dr. Korb, with retired Navy Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan and retired Army Lt. General Robert G. Gard, Jr., Chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Nuclear Nonproliferation, wrote that the resolution “clearly risks sending a message to the Iranians, the Bush Administration, and the world that Congress supports a more belligerent policy toward, and, potentially, belligerent actions against, Iran.”

Dr. Korb believes that the resolution is a way for Congress to protect itself from potential criticisms of being too soft on Iran, in case anything tragic happens. “It’s their way of saying to the Executive: ‘we gave you all the authority you need so, from here on, Iran is your responsibility.” Despite the noise that H. Con. Res. 362 and its sister Senate draft S. Res. 580 have created, it is unlikely that the resolution will clear the floor any time soon, “unless its language is significantly changed,” Dr. Korb told Washington Prism.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism – Persian Edition

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