Building a Coherent Iran Strategy from Incoherent Advice

There’s an op-ed in the New York Review of Books from William Luers, Thomas R. Pickering, and Jim Walsh giving advice on how to make some progress in dealing with Iran that I can only deem incoherent. Their suggestions rest on three legs. First, three of the most pressing security issues that face the incoming Obama Administration, i.e. nuclear proliferation, the situation in Iraq, and the situation in Afghanistan, all involve Iran, and rather than isolating these matters a reasonable approach would be to consolidate them. Fair enough. That’s a convention MBA sort of solution: when faced with an intractable problem, enlarge it. Second, in dealing with Iran the United States needs to consult with the other permanent UNSC members, the UN Secretary General, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, and the “Arab states”. I honestly think that they must mean “the Gulf states”—it’s hard for me to see why consulting Tunisia, for example, is of pressing urgency in negotiating with Iran.

Here I think they’re on shakier ground. American policy is being pulled in multiple directions at once as it is, I doubt that the competing interests of all of the players in their litany can be reconciled short of direct intervention from the Almighty, and “consulting”, say, Pakistan just to tell its leaders that you don’t care what their interests are probably won’t be particularly helpful. Nonetheless the Obama Administration has already committed itself to rebuilding bridges with our allies and so I expect some sort of consultation with the players mentioned is probably inevitable.

The third leg of their tripod is to have an ongoing forum

…that would allow the US, Iran, members of the Security Council, and neighboring governments to discuss questions involving Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is actually a pretty good idea. Truly thorny problems aren’t going to be resolved in a few quick meetings and wicked problems, i.e. problems that don’t actually have solutions, call for ongoing contact merely to prevent them from deteriorating.

Then they go off the deep end:

Resolving the nuclear issue and bringing stability to Iraq and Afghanistan will require direct talks between the United States, Iran, and other interested parties, and these talks must be without preconditions.

Unfortunately, Iran has already announced its own preconditions for talking with the Obama Administration:

To create a “real change in the atmosphere,” he said, Obama should halt ongoing CIA efforts to overthrow the Islamic republic, release Iranian assets frozen in U.S. banks since the 1979 hostage crisis, end banking sanctions and resume sales of civilian aircraft. That’s a long list, but Boroujerdi implied that any one of these measures, plus an Iraq timetable, would be enough to get a dialogue started.

Perhaps they mean that the U. S. should have no preconditions. How that will translate into a productive dialogue is unfathomable to me.

They continue:

While the Obama administration prepares for a major diplomatic push following the Iranian elections, it should take a number of actions in the meantime. These actions would be modest and low-key but would send an unambiguous signal to the Iranian government that the US is prepared to enter serious negotiations at the appropriate time. Early on, the Obama administration could offer a simple statement that the US government will seek to talk directly to all nations, without preconditions, in order to address the world’s problems. This could be followed by a reaffirmation of Article I of the 1981 Algiers Accord, in which the United States pledged not to interfere politically or militarily in Iran’s internal affairs.

The notion of pre-conceeding things that should certainly be bargaining chips concerns me. I’d think that we would want the strongest possible bargaining position before entering negotiations rather than deliberately weakening our bargaining position by making concesssions simply to bring the other party to the table.


It has to be stressed that until now, no regional institution has been established that includes all of Iraq’s neighbors together with members of the Security Council. Instead, each government in the region has been left to pursue its own policy in an ad hoc fashion and with no or only haphazard coordination with other governments.

If Israel is excluded from such a “regional institution” it wouldn’t include all of the parties involved—surely Iran’s repeated condemnations of Israel makes it an involved party. The very reason that there isn’t an institution that includes all of the parties involved is that not all of the parties involved will accept an institution that includes all of the involved parties.

I think the authors are confusing desireable with acceptable. Specifically, I think a regional forum would be the outcome of negotiations, at least initially, rather than a method for advancing negotiations right from the outset.

To recap. The authors propose that Iran and the United States negotiate without preconditions but fail to recognize that Iran has already announced its preconditions. They continue by proposing an additional set of preconditions that the U. S. should meet without any similar preconditions for the Iranians. That’s incoherent.

However, there’s a kernel of good sense in the article as its prominent commenters Lee Hamilton, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Henry Kissinger no doubt recognize. The U. S. and Iran should continue to negotiate as they have been for some time now and this is an excellent time for the U. S. to redouble its efforts in this area because its hand is stronger than it’s been in some time. Iraq is more stable than it has been in years, our and Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are actually congruent, and as long as the price of oil stays below $90 per barrel, Iran’s break-even point, the Iranian regime will be under considerable stress.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Cernig says:

    Let me get this straight. Iran says any one of its “long list” of requests that the US stop trying to change it’s government by covert action, stop keeping its money or preventing flights will be good enough to start negotiations, along with an Iraq timetable.

    There’s already an Iraq timetable.


    Iran’s first on the list is “halt ongoing CIA efforts to overthrow the Islamic republic.”

    Luers et al suggest “a reaffirmation of Article I of the 1981 Algiers Accord, in which the United States pledged not to interfere politically or militarily in Iran’s internal affairs.”


    And this reaffirmation of a legally binding treaty pledge is unfathomable to you because covert action to undermine their government should be a held as a “bargaining chip” in what would have to be good faith negotiations by both sides to have any chance of working.

    That’s unfathomable to me.

    Regards, C

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Cernig, how would the U.S. prove that it halted ongoing CIA efforts to overthrow the Islamic republic? Or that it isn’t doing so indirectly through various other lackies?

  3. PD Shaw says:

    OTOH, the U.S. should set as a precondition that Iran comply fully with its obligations under the Nuclearn Non-proliferation Treaty.

    Check, right?

  4. Cernig says:

    PD, what parts of the NPT is Iran not in compliance with, right now? It has a Treaty right to enrichment and has a basic inspection regime as required. There is no proof it has a current weapons program

    Treaty apparently complied with? Check.

    Regards, C

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Let’s just say that I’m as satisfied with the proof Iranian compliance as I believe Iran would be satisfied with American assurances that it’s not trying to overthrow its government.

  6. Brett says:

    Has Iran publicly apologized for the 1979 Hostage situation? That would be something to extract from the Iranian regime if they want to have their banks and accounts unfrozen.

    As is, it would be nice just to get an embassy back in Iran, and be able to buy Iranian oil (which they’d no doubt like to be able to sell to us).