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U.S. Should Seek Comprehensive Accord with Iran

Interviewee: Hillary Mann Leverett, CEO, Stratega
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
February 4, 2009

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Hillary Mann Leverett,who helped negotiate a cooperation deal with Iran over Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003, says she now believes that such limited tactical accords, while useful, would be no replacement for a so-called Grand Strategy. "Iran would need to be prepared to address our concerns about the nuclear issue, Tehran's ties to terrorist organizations, and problematic aspects of its regional role; the United States would need to be prepared to address Iran's legitimate security concerns, lift sanctions, normalize bilateral relations, and acknowledge the Islamic Republic and its place in the regional order."

When you were at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and then on the National Security Council staff in the years between 2001 to 2003, you were involved in unpublicized talks with Iran over Afghanistan and al-Qaeda as part of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's team. Were those successful talks? What were we trying to get from the Iranians at that time?

We were trying to get their approval and cooperation for our approach to rout al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan and to then establish a political order that would prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a launching pad for terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. These talks were successful; during the period in which we were cooperating with Iran, Afghanistan was an increasingly stable place with al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the run.

So Iran has always been interested in Afghanistan, right? What are their interests there?

“The United States would need to be prepared to address Iran’s legitimate security concerns, lift sanctions, normalize bilateral relations, and acknowledge the Islamic Republic and its place in the regional order.”

Afghanistan, like several of Iran's other neighbors, is perceived by Iran to be a very problematic state.  Afghanistan is right on Iran's border, and has periodically had either a chaotic internal political situation that the Iranians have seen as threatening or an outright hostile government that has persecuted Shiites inside Afghanistan and threatened Iran indirectly and even directly. So, for example, in 1998, the Taliban government was responsible for storming the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, in north-central Afghanistan, and killing nine of Iran's diplomats there. There's been a long history of real antagonism between Iran and the Taliban.

So the Iranians were in support of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan?

Yes, absolutely. But what was critical for Iran was the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 became the impetus for a reevaluation of their national security strategy, especially regarding the United States. They saw an opportunity to cooperate with the United States to deal with the Taliban and al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan. And, from what they told us, the U.S. negotiators, they also saw 9/11 as an event that would have a fundamental impact on U.S. national-security thinking. In particular, the Iranians saw this as an opportunity to cooperate with us on this tactical issue that they could then translate into a fundamental realignment of relations between the United States and Iran, because Iran would be seen in the United States as being on "the right side of history," to use President Obama's vocabulary.

Let's jump ahead to this year. The Obama administration is now contemplating an approach to Iran. President Obama has said he would like to have some kind of dialogue; he's also said Iran should live up to the Security Council demands on suspending its nuclear enrichment program. What would be your suggestion on what the president should be doing?

My experience in dealing with Iranians over Afghanistan tells me that, although those talks were productive, they were structurally flawed. As long as there was no comprehensive, strategic framework for dealing with the Iranians, a variety of unrelated issues could undermine otherwise productive talks at any time. So whether it was an alleged Iranian arms shipment to Palestinians, whether it was some nasty statements that someone in Iran made, whether it was competing views in Washington on the MEK [Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, an anti-Iranian group based in Iraq] those issues, in the absence of a strategic framework, torpedoed our talks on Afghanistan. There's going to be a great temptation to try to engage Iran now on areas where there may be common interest, like Afghanistan or Iraq. And, while I see some utility to that, the unfortunate thing is that we've done this with the Iranians before, not only on Afghanistan in 2001 to 2003, but also in other arenas dating back to the Iran-Contra affair [the secret sale of weapons to Iran] in the Reagan administration. In each of these cases of issue-specific tactical cooperation, it was the United States, not Iran, that cut off negotiations, usually because of some domestic political consideration here.

If we go down that path again, we may gain some short-term benefit, but the bigger problem is that each time those talks are cut off, the level of mistrust skyrockets and brings us closer to conflict with the Iranians. To insulate any tactical talks we have with the Iranians over issues of mutual interest like Afghanistan or Iraq, we need to have a broad-based strategic understanding with the Iranians, similar to Nixon and Kissinger's approach of fundamental rapprochement with China in the 1970s,  ultimately embodied in the Shanghai Communique in 1972. The Iranians recognize the need for a comprehensive approach. In May 2003, just before we cut off the dialogue with the Iranians over Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, the Iranians sent us an offer for talks with a comprehensive agenda, which, unfortunately, the Bush administration rejected.

Do you think that offer for a so-called Grand Strategy is still workable?

There's nothing really wrong with that offer today. The substance still applies: Iran would need to be prepared to address our concerns about the nuclear issue, Tehran's ties to terrorist organizations, and problematic aspects of its regional role; the United States would need to be prepared to address Iran's legitimate security concerns, lift sanctions, normalize bilateral relations, and acknowledge the Islamic Republic and its place in the regional order. We can use that offer to start comprehensive talks with the Iranians, to make clear that, while we want to cooperate with them on areas of mutual interest like Afghanistan, we are also in favor of a more fundamental reorientation of our relations, that our overarching goal is rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

How do you deal with the nuclear issue, which of course has since become the major thorn in relations?

The new administration needs to question whether Iran is really striving to become history's first "suicide" nation by actually using nuclear weapons for anything other than deterrent purposes. I would argue that the alternative is much more likely--that Iran can pursue its national interests in a rational way and is pursuing a nuclear weapons option as part of a broader strategy to protect itself. And if that is the case, how can we get at the reasons Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons option so that Iran, in the end, doesn't see a need to weaponize its nuclear program?  How can we do that? Most countries have strategic depth either because of geography, conventional military forces, or alliances. Iran has none of that. Its borders are mostly land borders with countries that are hostile to it. It perceives all of its fifteen neighbors as strategic problems. Even its relationship with Syria is looked at as tactical, not strategic. To give it the strategic depth that it otherwise doesn't have, Iran pursues what I would call an asymmetric national security strategy. This includes unconventional weapons options; it also includes relationships with regional groups, some of which we deem terrorist organizations, but some of which are militias associated with political parties in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran's relationship with those groups provides it with a measure of strategic depth that it needs and doesn't have.

So if we look at how do we deal with the nuclear problem with Iran, there really is no amount of economic sanctions or economic inducements that is going to change Iran's calculation that it needs to  compensate for its lack of strategic depth in order to protect itself. That calculation can only be affected through stratetgic incentives.

So what should Obama do?

Obama needs to get at Iran's national security dilemma and address it by providing security guarantees.

What do you mean by "security guarantees"?

The United States would commit itself not to seek to change the form of government or the borders of the Islamic Republic of Iran by force. The United States would also acknowledge the government of the Islamic Republic and its role in the region. Those are the main components of a security guarantee that would be critically important for the government of Iran.

Can any U.S. government do that so long as Iran is backing Hezbollah and Hamas and talking about Israel being "wiped off the map"?

No U.S. administration would be able to give Iran those security guarantees as long as the Iranians continue to have ties to groups that we've designated as terrorist organizations, like Hamas and Hezbollah. We need to have a comprehensive agenda that shows the Iranians what we are willing to do in terms of security guarantees. But to do that we're going to need them to reconfigure their relationships with these groups. We would need to unpack that. We would need to be clear that a political relationship with groups like Hezbollah and Hamas is not necessarily unacceptable, but Iran would need to commit not to provide weapons or funds that allow those groups to carry out violent attacks.

Is that a realistic possibility?

Yes. This is what the Iranians offered to discuss in the May 2003 offer. So they understand what the trade-off is. The way I see it, the logic of the grand bargain, from our side and from the Iranian side, is enduring, like the logic for Sino-American rapprochement. We don't trust the Chinese completely today; the Chinese don't completely trust us today. Similarly, the Iranians aren't going to completely trust us and we're not going to completely trust them. However, the track record we have with the Iranians, dating back to the Iran-Contra scandal in 1985, is that, in each of the episodes in which we've pursued tactical cooperation, the Iranians have been able to deliver most, not everything, but most of what we asked. The historical record shows an Iranian ability to deliver.

“To insulate any tactical talks we have with the Iranians over issues of mutual interest like Afghanistan or Iraq, we need to have a broad-based strategic understanding with the Iranians, similar to Nixon and Kissinger's approach of fundamental rapprochement with China in the 1970s.”

This gives us a clear, rational, substantive basis for rapprochement. The critical component here is that the United States needs to see Iran and its leadership as a country increasingly able to pursue its national interests in an instrumentally rational way. If we can see it that way here--and it's very very hard for a lot of people here to do so--then it becomes easier to see how this path goes forward. It doesn't work, of course, if you think Iran is a "suicide" nation, right? But if we in Washington can see Iran as increasingly driven by national interests rather than just ideology, then this becomes a much clearer way forward.

Should the United States do what it did with China and start secret talks?

Some people think that is the only way forward. But Iran today is not like China in the early 1970s.  Iran is not this opaque, closed society like China was, where we don't know the characters and haven't had interactions with them. Now, certainly talks going forward on this shouldn't be done under the limelight of cameras, as were the talks that Ryan Crocker [the outgoing ambassador to Iraq] had at the ambassadorial level with Iran. The talks we had on Afghanistan in 2001 to 20033 weren't secret; we just didn't talk about them. A lot of people certainly knew that they were going on, but they were done in a much less formal environment than Ryan's talks in Baghdad.

And they were in third-party cities--Paris and Geneva?

Yes. Today, we could have William Burns [undersecretary of state] or a comparable official participate in the multilateral, P-5+1 nuclear talks [the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus German], but at the same time have talks on the sidelines where we work with the Iranians to define a comprehensive agenda for U.S.-Iran bilateral diplomacy. There are more and more indications from the Iranians that this is something they would be interested in, but they're very concerned that the United States will shift from using a professional diplomat to using a political appointee with a perceived ideological perspective. And their concern about that could have an impact on the chances to make progress.

Should the United States send a letter to the Iranians?

The Iranians have made clear that they would welcome some sort of letter from the U.S. side that would lay out a comprehensive agenda such as we've discussed. They caution, though, that what's important is the substance of the letter, and that Washington should not try to play Iranian politics and pick and choose which power centers in Tehran it wants to deal with. And they caution that the appointment of a U.S. envoy is going to matter to them. Now maybe in 2003, it wouldn't have mattered as much. But today, five-plus years later, with the amount of distrust and the concern about our intentions, particularly as they relate to regime change in Iran, they're going to be very, very concerned if the designated envoy is perceived as someone biased against Iran.

When all is said and done, if there is a grand negotiation, do you think Iran will agree to a program in which it cannot make nuclear weapons?

I think Iran would agree to intrusive verification measures that would make it virtually impossible for Tehran to start moving toward actual weaponization without the international community knowing, very early, that the Iranians were starting down that road.

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