Last Updated: 07/30/2008
Negotiation, not strikes, needed for Iran
Lisa Schirch and Lynn Kunkle
Key Words: US, Iran, Conflict, Negotiation, Diplomacy, Oil, Nuclear, Non-Proliferation Treaty, Foreign Policy
As concerns persist that Israel or the United States could
attack Iran, the realistic outcomes of such an event must be considered. An
American military attack, rather than making the world more secure, could
instead provide Iran with greater incentive to harm US interests and allies
throughout the region. Principled negotiation, an interest-based approach to
problem solving, could provide an alternative to coercive diplomacy to help
resolve the current impasse.
A US strike would give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the pretext to move
against Iranian reformers and civil society groups critical of the regime,
silencing both dissident and pro-engagement voices. Iranian public opinion
polls show that the Iranian people would rally around their president if
attacked, leading some civil society leaders to warn that a foreign strike
could set their reform efforts back decades.
Even "pinprick" surgical strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities
could trigger a massive blowback against US interests and personnel in the
region. The exposure of US interests to unpredictable and asymmetrical regional
forces aligned to Iran would be nearly impossible to control. Some have
estimated that the escalating rhetoric between the United States and Iran alone has pushed up the price of oil by $50 per barrel.
Nor is a military strike in Iran likely to achieve the stated US goal of preventing the country's nuclear enrichment programme. As international
criticism against US policy grows, chief UN nuclear inspector Mohammed
al-Baradei recently asserted that an attacked Iran would have grounds to leave
the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Precipitous US action could therefore end up
creating the very outcome it seeks to avoid.
Direct, open-ended, comprehensive, and bilateral talks with Iran still promise the best payoff for US interests in regional stability, secure oil
resources and the promotion of democracy. Principled negotiation with Iran lays the groundwork for addressing the root causes of conflict between the two
countries – from both perspectives.
For the United States, underlying sources of conflict with Iran are tied to fears over nuclear weapons capability and the country's support for
regional actors using violent means to achieve their aims. Regional stability
and human rights issues are also concerns.
For Iran, the concerns include the need for secure and reliable energy
development; international and regional recognition; respect for sovereign
rights, regime security and regional stability and a perceived US bias toward Israel. Developing ways to acknowledge these interests would pave the way for more
substantial diplomatic successes supporting US interests.
Principled negotiation with Iran could help the United States promote stability
in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon by highlighting common ground on shared
security issues. Iran has a long-term interest in stable, democratic
neighbours. The scant evidence of Iranian support and training for Iraqi Shi'a
groups suggests considerable Iranian restraint, given its porous 1,000-mile
border and close religious kinship.
Iran, historically a pragmatic regional power, can play a productive role in
countries in the region where the US has significant interests. Tehran has long opposed al Qaeda and the Taliban, supported Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan, taken the lead in poppy eradication, and even mediated among Iraqi Shi'a militias,
helping to account for some of the successes of the recent US "surge". Iran has also stated its willingness to negotiate its support for
Hamas and Hizbullah.
The current strategy of only agreeing to talk with preconditions – on those
issues Iran has stated its willingness to negotiate – prolongs the coercive
posturing, leaving only sporadic, hesitant and easily derailed back-channel
diplomacy to address issues of major regional significance. Senator Arlen
Specter characterised this approach as "27 years of silence broken only by
a few whispers," which "has not worked and has left us in the
dangerous predicament in which we find ourselves today."
More investment is needed in public, back-channel, and citizen diplomatic
engagement with Iran to build much-needed relationships, trust and
cross-cultural understanding. Search for Common Ground, the Mennonite Central
Committee and the Fellowship for Reconciliation are good examples of
organisations that regularly exchange delegations between Iran and the United States.
It will take political courage to employ respectful, principled negotiation and
diplomacy with Iran. But bold diplomatic initiatives and principled neutrality
in sovereign affairs are proud traditions of American foreign policy.
If the United States resorts to military attacks on Iran, it certainly will not
be able to claim this path as a "last resort" until it has first
exhausted all possible diplomatic methods as a "first resort."
Lisa Schirch and Lynn Kunkle work together at the 3D Security Initiative (www.3Dsecurity.org), which promotes
conflict prevention and peace building in US public and foreign policy. This
article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be
accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.