Wooing Tehran: Nixon engaged China. Obama must be equally bold with Iran.

article image
image by Greg Von Doersten, Aurora Photos

The debate about America’s Iran policy is reminiscent of a debate over how to discipline badly behaved children. On one side, a hard-line “spare the rod and spoil the child” school argues that this immature polity must be coerced into more appropriate behavior. On the other side, a pro-engagement “build a problem child’s self-esteem” camp argues that it is more productive to cajole Iran into better behavior through various material inducements.

This type of discussion is profoundly flawed, for it overlooks an important new reality: Iran’s growing strategic importance and confidence in its role in the region mean it is no longer just a threat to be managed. More than ever, it is now an international actor that can profoundly undermine, or help advance, many of the United States’ most vital strategic objectives.

It is clearly time for a fundamental change of course in the U.S. approach to the Islamic Republic. Nearly three decades of U.S. policy toward Iran emphasizing diplomatic isolation, escalating economic pressure, and thinly veiled support for regime change have damaged the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. U.S.-Iranian tensions have been a constant source of regional instability and are increasingly dangerous for global energy security.

By fundamental change, we do not mean trying to coerce Tehran into near-term (and imminently reversible) concessions, or simply trying to manage the Iranian challenge more adroitly than the Bush administration did. Rather, we propose the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain.” This would entail putting all of the principal bilateral differences between the United States and Iran on the table at the same time and agreeing to resolve them as a package.

The Nixon administration applied this model to relations with China during the early 1970s. President Nixon and his advisers recognized and forthrightly acknowledged that a quarter century of U.S. efforts to isolate, weaken, and press China had not served America’s strategic interests in Asia or globally. In an act of extraordinary statesmanship, Nixon redefined America’s China policy so that it would serve those interests. Furthermore, he did so when Chairman Mao still presided over the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic was going through the Cultural Revolution.

President Obama needs to display the same sort of wisdom and boldness in re-crafting American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is clearly in the national security interest of the United States–and in the interest of America’s regional allies–to try to get Iran to work with us whenever and wherever possible, rather than against us. Simply put, the Obama administration will not be able to achieve any of its high-profile policy goals in the Middle East–in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Arab-Israeli arena–or with regard to energy security without putting U.S.-Iranian relations on a more positive path.

Iran’s location, in the heart of the Persian Gulf and at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, was always strategically important. It’s more so now that we are bogged down in two ground wars in countries along its borders.

Iran’s oil and gas resources have also heightened its strategic importance. For more than a decade, the United States has been successful in its efforts to keep European energy companies out of the Iranian upstream–that is, out of the discovery and production of crude oil and natural gas–with the effect of limiting Iran’s rates of oil and gas production. This policy amounts to declaring that the world’s third-largest proven reserves of conventional crude oil and the world’s second-largest proven reserves of natural gas should stay in the ground until Washington decides otherwise. Such a position might have been bearable (if shortsighted) in the 1990s, when energy prices were low and the adequacy of global supplies was not an immediate concern. Today, it is profoundly irresponsible.

The lack of new European investment in Iran leaves the field open for increasingly capable Chinese, Russian, and other non-Western energy companies to take the lead in helping Tehran develop its hydrocarbon resources. An expanding Russian role in the Iranian upstream would be especially problematic from a U.S. and European perspective; it would, among other things, help consolidate Russia’s increasingly dominant supplier role in European energy markets.

While it may not be easy for some Americans to acknowledge, most of Iran’s national security interests are perfectly legitimate: to be free from the threat of attack or interference in Iran’s internal affairs, and to have the United States accept the political order of the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate government.

We may not like some (or many) of the strategic and tactical choices that the Iranian leadership has made in pursuing these interests: its extensive links to a multiplicity of political factions and associated armed militias in Iraq, its support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that the U.S. government designates as terrorist organizations, or its pursuit of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. These choices work against U.S. interests–and, on some issues, antagonize American sensibilities. They are not, however, irrational, particularly in the face of what many Iranian elites believe is continuing hostility from their neighbors and the United States toward the Iranian revolution and the political order it generated.

Negotiations toward a “grand bargain” would have to address Iran’s security interests, including extending U.S. security assurances to the Islamic Republic, lifting sanctions against Iran, and acknowledging the Islamic Republic’s place in the regional and international order; and America’s security interests, including stopping what Washington sees as Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, its support for terrorism, its opposition to a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its problematic role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Flynt Leverett, senior fellow and director of the New America Foundation’s Geopolitics of Energy Initiative, was senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy, and a former director for Iran, Afghanistan, and Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council. Excerpted from the Washington Monthly(Aug.-Oct. 2008) a political magazine with original reporting and innovative policy solutions and a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for political coverage; www.washingtonmonthly.com.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.