Lack of Engagement with Iran Threatens U.S. National Interests in Critical Region of the World, Concludes Council-Sponsored Task Force

July 19, 2004
8:28 am (EST)

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Policy Based on Regime Change Not Likely to Succeed; New U.S. Approach Needed


July 19, 2004 – The lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms American interests, and direct dialogue with Tehran on specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued, concludes a Council-sponsored Independent Task Force, Iran: Time for a New Approach. “The Islamic Republic appears to be solidly entrenched and the country is not on the brink of revolutionary upheaval,” says the Task Force. “Those forces that are committed to preserving Iran’s current system remain firmly in control and represent the country’s only authoritative interlocutors. The urgency of the concerns surrounding [Iran’s] policies mandates the United States to deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall.”

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Co-chaired by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Director of Central Intelligence Robert M. Gates, and directed by Suzanne Maloney, the Task Force includes experts with a wide range of views and backgrounds.

The Task Force acknowledges that past efforts to engage Iran’s Islamic regime have failed, and that even a discerning policy may still be rebuffed by the regime’s obstinacy. However, two recent developments highlight the most urgent priorities for U.S. policy toward Iran. The ongoing investigation of the International Atomic Energy Agency into Iran’s nuclear program and the evolving situations in Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the vital relevance of Iran for U.S. policy.

The Task Force concludes Iran is experiencing a gradual process of internal change. It argues this process will eventually produce a government more responsive toward its citizenry’s wishes and more responsible in its international approach. In the meantime, the urgency of U.S. concerns about Iran and the region mandate that the United States deal with the current regime rather than waiting it out.

The Task Force advocates a “compartmentalized” process of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement. Specifically the Task Force concludes that it “is in the interests of the United States to engage selectively with Iran to promote regional stability, dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, preserve reliable energy supplies, reduce the threat of terror, and address the “democracy deficit” that pervades the Middle East as a whole.”

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The Task Force highlights the following different approaches to Iran:


  • Selective political engagement. The United States should not defer a political dialogue with Iran until deep differences over its nuclear ambitions and involvement in regional conflicts have been resolved. “Just as the United States has a constructive relationship with China (and earlier did so with the Soviet Union) while strongly opposing certain aspects of its internal and international policies, Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while continuing to contest objectionable policy.”



  • Incremental progress vs. ‘grand bargain.’ “A ‘grand bargain’ that would settle comprehensively the outstanding conflicts between Iran and the United States is not a realistic goal, and pursuing such an outcome would be unlikely to produce near-term progress on Washington’s central interests.” Instead, the Task Force recommends “selectively engaging Iran on issues where U.S. and Iranian interests converge.”



  • Fewer sticks, more carrots. “U.S. reliance on comprehensive unilateral sanctions has not succeeded in its stated objective to alter Iranian conduct and has deprived Washington of greater leverage vis-à-vis the Iranian government apart from the threat of force.” Given the increasingly important role of economic interests in shaping Iran’s policies at home and abroad, “the prospect of commercial relations with the United States could be a powerful tool in Washington’s arsenal.”



  • Promote democracy, not regime change. “The United States should advocate democracy in Iran without relying on the rhetoric of regime change, as that would be likely to rouse nationalist sentiments in defense of the current regime even among those who currently oppose it.” The United States should focus instead on promoting political evolution that would lead to stronger democratic institutions internally and enhanced diplomatic and economic relations abroad.


Among the Task Force’s recommendations for U.S. policy toward Iran:


  1. Offer Iran a direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization to “encourage constructive Iranian involvement in the process of consolidating authority within the central governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan and in rebuilding their economies.” A basic statement of principles along the lines of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué signed by the United States and China could be developed to outline the parameters for U.S.-Iranian engagement.



  2. Press Iran to clarify the status of al-Qaeda operatives detained by Tehran and “make clear that a security dialogue will be conditional on assurances that [Iran] is not facilitating violence against the new Iraqi and Afghan governments or the coalition forces that are assisting them.” At the same time, Washington should work with the interim government of Iraq to conclusively disband the Iraq-based Mojahideen-e-Khalq, the largest and most militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran.



  3. Together with its European allies and Russia, implement a more focused strategy to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. “Iran should be pressed to fulfill its October 2003 commitment to maintain a complete and verified suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities,” while the United States and other members of the international community pursue a framework for a more durable solution to the nuclear issue. “Tehran must clearly understand that unless it demonstrates real, uninterrupted cooperation with the IAEA process, it will face the prospect of multilateral sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.”



  4. Resume a genuinely active involvement in the Middle East peace process and press Arab states to do the same. “A serious effort on the part of Washington toward achieving Arab-Israeli peace is central to eventually stemming the tide of extremism in the region.”



  5. Adopt measures to broaden the political, cultural, and economic linkages between the Iranian population and the wider world, including authorizing nongovernmental organizations to operate in Iran and consenting to Iran’s application to begin talks with the World Trade Oraganization. “Iran’s isolation only impedes its people’s ongoing struggle for a more democratic government and strengthens the hand of hard-liners who preach confrontation with the rest of the world.”


Task Force Co-chairs:

Zbigniew Brzezinski is former National Security Advisor to the President, and author, most recently, of The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership.

Robert M. Gates is the 22nd President of Texas A&M University, one of the nation’s largest universities and an institution recognized internationally for its teaching, research and public service. He assumed the presidency of the land-grant, sea-grant and space-grant university on August 1, 2002. Dr. Gates served as Director of Central Intelligence from November 6, 1991 until January 20, 1993. In this position, he headed all foreign intelligence agencies of the United States and directed the Central Intelligence Agency. Dr. Gates has been awarded the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, has twice received the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, and has three times received CIA’s highest award, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.



Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that individual and corporate members, as well as policymakers, journalists, students, and interested citizens in the United States and other countries, can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.

Contact: Lisa Shields, Vice President, Communications, (212) 434-9888

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