Engaging Iran

The United States is a very large and diverse country, its people have many differing views as you’d expect in such a country, and, not particularly surprisingly, some of those views are in diametric opposition. That’s particularly apparent in Americans’ views of how we should interact with Iran.

Isolationism remains a strong strain of thought in the United States and many if not most Americans are largely uninterested in what goes on in the next county let alone halfway across the world as long as it doesn’t affect their daily lives. These Americans would just as soon ignore the Iranian election as anything else. Another strain of isolationism sees dealing with Iran as the responsibility of international institutions: the United Nations, NATO, the IAEA, anybody as long as it doesn’t involve us. Make no mistake “let George do it” is as isolationistic as simply wishing it wouldn’t bother us.

For some Americans, pessimistic realists, the only way to deal with Iran is military force. So far those who favor attacking or invading Iran haven’t come up with an explanation of how they’ll achieve their objectives with anything short of an exterminatory strike or why such a course would be morally justifiable, what forces they’d use for an invasion of Iran, or that there’s political support for such a course of action.

In the blogosphere lately optimistic idealists have been stridently vocal in their support for the Iranian people’s aspirations for freedom. That presupposes that those in Iran who want a freer, more democratic Iran are representative of Iranians, generally, that if a fair reckoning of the vote had been made it would have resulted in a different outcome, that any likely outcome of the processes that are unfolding in Iran would result in a freer, more democratic Iran, and that how we or our government react can have any positive influence on how events develop in Iran.

President Obama has heretofore taken the position that we should negotiate with whomever is elected to the presidency in Iran and has responded warily to the demonstrators and whatever opposition movement they represent.

This morning Nader Mousavizadeh, consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, makes an interesting suggestion in an op-ed in the Washington Post, that we should engage Iran and ignore Ahmadinejad:

First, the administration should provide unequivocal recognition of Iran’s popular movement for greater freedoms and openness, and condemn the government’s crackdown. Whether an “Obama effect” has been at work in the streets of Tehran the past few days is not important; what matters is that after 30 years, the tired chant of “Death to America” has been replaced by “Death to the dictator.” A change is echoing down the capital’s boulevards that this U.S. president cannot fail to honor.

Second, the administration should interpret Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s sanction of Ahmadinejad’s “victory” as confirmation — if any was needed — that the supreme leader is the power that matters in Iran, and, as such, is the person with whom a strategic dialogue should be established. Taking Ahmadinejad’s bait for another four years would be both counter-productive and unnecessary. Already, the Obama administration has explored ways to establish a line of communication with Khamenei. Through trusted intermediaries and imaginative diplomacy, opportunities for a direct dialogue with the supreme leader will present themselves. They must be seized.

The key elements of this negotiation are well known: persuading Iran not to weaponize its nuclear program and to urge its allies in Hamas and Hezbollah to pursue their aims through political and not military means. In return, Iran could look forward to acceptance of a legitimate role for itself in regional security and, over time, reintegration into the international community. It is as clear now as it was before last week’s voting that such a strategic dialogue, however challenging, is better served by starting with areas of common interest — such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq — as opposed to the nuclear dispute. If Iran’s true nuclear capabilities remain shrouded in mystery today, its people’s intentions regarding a future of greater freedoms and peaceful engagement with the world have never been clearer.

That’s a program that makes sense to me. To his “key elements” I’d add ensuring that Iran conforms fully to its obligations under the NPT and relevant UN resolutions on North Korea.

That might be interpreted as placing President Obama in something of a predicament but I don’t think that’s true. Pursuing different policies when circumstances change, as they clearly have been revealed to have done in Iran, isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of sanity.

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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. The crux of the Iranian situation is their pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the time it takes to marry the weapons with a suitable vehicle. We and the key Europeans have been pursuing the diplomatic approach for 5 or 6 years now, with virtually zero results.

    Meanwhile under the sands of Iran is a growing pile of weapons grade material and launch vehicles that our intel projects to be ready anywhere from 6 months from now to 10 years away.

    The intel we have is not reliable. That is the unfortunate truth, or else we would have a far better idea of the timing. We most likely do not have the time for a leasurely, multi-year diplomatic ploy now.

    The second crucial element is Israel. I suggest that when their own intel tells them it is the critical time to stop Iran from further weapons development, they will attack Iran by air. For them it is a matter of survival, and they will ignore US attempts to stop them. To me, it is obvious that the US would not use military force to stop the Israelis.

    Further, I suggest that the IAF will have to reduce Iran’s air defenses before going after the nuclear sites, and that will include communications, command and control and airfield sites in order to limit the Iranian defenses seriously.

    Some of the nuclear sites are carefully placed adjacent to or under population centers in order to guarantee civilian casualties in the event of attack. There will be many casualties publicized by the Iranians.

    The third critical element is the question of what the US will do in this event? It has been stated by Iran officials that, if the Israelis do attack, they will go after the US as well around the world and in Iraq with their in-place supporters. This is no idle threat.

    It seems logical to me that the US would respond to such attacks with full force on Iran, mainly by air, to ensure the destruction of nuclear sites, but also to reduce the shore-based missile sites that threaten the Gulf, and will by necessity reduce the Iranian air force and navy to near nothing.

    I also suggest that US ground forces may well seek to capture and occupy the Western oilfields of Iran, and hope to draw the Iranian forces out into a pitched battle, which would be hugely in our favor. Without this crude oil for export, Iran will be destitute. They may also extend their occupation to Southern Iran to dig out any missile sites still operational.

    Thus, our moral position would be global self-defense against Iran, and the reduction of the threat wherever found.

    I suggest that once we have been attacked by Iran as threatened, the will to action would be no problem, and thus the means to “defend” ourselves would be found quickly.

    This, to me, is a very likely scenario.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    re: mannning June 18, 2009 14:09

    That entire scenario sounds like a neocon’s wetdream, er, dream…

  3. I don’t quite see these dichotomies.

    I support the demonstrators not because I think they want precisely what I want, but because if they succeed in toppling Ahmadinejad they’ll have demonstrated that the people have real power. It will be tougher to put that genie back in the bottle.

    I think that’s about where most Americans are: we’d like to see the protesters win because it will weaken Khamenei and strengthen prospects for a gradual move to democracy. Such an evolution would likely a) make the Iranians more open to negotiating or at least b) less dangerous in the event they continue to pursue nuclear weapons.

    Most of us oppose a war, and most of us are not isolationsists. And certainly Mr. Obama is neither war-monger nor isolationist.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with that, Michael. There is one school of thought I didn’t discuss in my post and I think it’s the one that President Obama subscribes to: I think he’s an optimistic realist. Most of our presidents are either optimistic realists (George H. W. Bush, for example) or optimistic idealists (Woodrow Wilson, for example).

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    I think he’s an optimistic realist

    Dude, he is a Sith Dark lord……

  6. AIP: Why, every scenario about the future is someone’s dream, but you have it wrong. No neocon here. You should post your reasons for smearing my comment, not splattering your silly wetness all over the place.

    I would love to read where the holes in that scenario are from you, if you can keep the invective down. Perhaps you can’t—just not wanting to cope with the logic.

  7. Franklin says:

    While I appreciate your scenario mannning (why the third n?), I think some things depend on the final result of these demonstrations. Who will have power and how much will they have, are they going to be willing to go on with their nuclear program and in what way? You’re right about our intel, we basically have none. It may be worse than our intel was in Iraq, which was a bit off the mark to put it politely.

    I am curious about one thing in your scenario, which is how Iran is going to attack us “around the world and in Iraq.” The meaning here was slightly ambiguous to me – I took that to mean attacking the continental U.S., but it’s possible you meant attacking our various bases and other assets, anywhere in the world.

    Also, do you think any supposed allies of Iran join the fight? I’m thinking maybe Russia or North Korea. Thanks for any thoughts.

  8. Franklin: Speaking for Iran, President A. (I cannot remember his spelling!)stated that Iraq would hit US military sites, and businesses, both in the US and wherever located around the world, if Iran was attacked by the US or Israel. Some have taken this statement, and the other threat to wipe Israel off the map, to be scare mongering, and unreal. I happen to believe otherwise.

    Russia has been my chief worry in the scenario. I have no idea what they would do if Iran was attacked by Israel (and, in a variant scenario, together with the US at the same time, rather than after Iran responds)! Would such an attack be the beginning of WWIII? That I do not know either.

    Syria has a mutual defense treaty with Iran. They might well fight Israel, but in this instance, I believe they would be thinking very hard about the direct US involvement and what we could do to them if they did join Iran in the fight. In the end, I am inclined to believe they would join Iran, reluctantly.

    The NK just might decide to do something radical at a crucial moment in this scenario. Would they attack South Korea? It is possible, because of our limited troop power and empty pot of gold. We would be stressed to the limit and beyond once we were fully engaged with Iran.

    We will face hard times if this scenario occurs!

  9. The third “n” is a whimsical one, that makes the name somewhat unique.

  10. For many years during the cold war the guiding principle for sizing our military was to be able to fight two major wars, and a minor one at the same time. This principle was cast aside by Bill Clinton during his presidency, resulting in an approximate 35 or 40% reduction in our armed forces.

    This post-Nam “peace dividend” was quickly oversubscribed, and we have been paying for it ever since with hurry-up and expensive procurements and heavy recruiting, plus using our Guard and Reserves on tour after tour. If we come up short in the near future, it will be because of the denial or soft playing of the principle by both Clinton and GW Bush. The idea of our nation being able to afford both guns and butter now is probably over, and our power in the world will suffer, if only because we must avoid conflicts where possible, and our opposition knows that.

    I do not see Obama at all interested in growing the military, which means we can be intimidated by relatively small, poor nations that happen to have a large army, such as North Korea and Iran.

    Let us hope that we can keep the big bangs in their boxes as we struggle ahead.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    re: mannning | June 18, 2009 | 11:54 pm

    Your scenario seems to presume that military action against Iran is inevitable…I’ve only seen neocons advance this argument, hence my use of the term…

  12. AiP: The key assumptions I have made, which are based on precedents and statements by the respective parties, are: 1) That the Israelis will attack Iran when they are convinced that there is no other way; and 2) That Iran will respond to this attack by their own attacks on Israel and the US, using terrorist-type assaults; and, 3) That the US will respond to the Iranian attacks.

    If (1) is not true, then neither will (2) or (3) be true. If (1) is true, then (2) may or may not be true, depending on the Iranian response. If (2) is not true for the US, it is very problematical whether (3) would be true. But, if (1) and (2) are true, I assert that (3) will be true also.

    So, engagement is not inevitable. It depends on the Israelis to begin with. Would you care to make a bet that they will not attack Iran? Given that they do attack, would you make a bet that Iran will not attack US assets in response? Finally, if Iran does attack US assets, would you make a bet that we will not respond with our own attacks? I will gladly take those bets.

    The other side scenario is that the US decides to join the Israeli attack, reasoning that we will become involved anyway, so why not do a good job in neutralizing the nuclear threat from Iran? Further, it is possible that Israel does not succeed in their attack, and it leaves them very short of trained pilots and aircraft, and thus more vulnerable to the Iranian, and perhaps Syrian responses. We end up being drawn into the fight anyway since I believe we would come to Israel’s defense. We end up with real damage to our people in both scenarios, and end up attacking Iran.