“IF you deal in camels, make the doors high,” an Afghan proverb cautions. As the dangers mount in the confrontation between the United States and Iran, both sides will have to raise the doors high for diplomacy to work, and to avoid conflict.
A diplomatic strategy must begin with the United States’ setting its priorities and then defining a practical path to achieve them. To achieve its top priorities, it will have to learn what Iran needs. Since the United States will not get total surrender from Iran, it must decide what it can put on the table to assure that both sides can reach a deal that will be durable.
American leaders have been masterly at diplomatic strategies — “building high doors” — to make deals. Franklin D. Roosevelt opened relations with the Soviet Union in 1933 to balance the ascendance of menacing forces in Germany and Japan. He was acting for geopolitical reasons, and in spite of his objection to Communism. Richard M. Nixon opened relations with China to enhance American leverage in dealing with the Soviet Union. He re-framed — but did not give up on — the American commitment to Taiwan to accomplish his objective. In each case, the presidents were acting against the advice of most of their close advisers.
In our own time, President Obama’s initial instincts on Iran were correct: only he can lead the United States to agreements with Iran that advance American national interests.
The first question is how to get such diplomacy started, and on that, Nixon’s strategy toward China is instructive.
Before traveling to Beijing in 1972, Nixon outlined on his ubiquitous yellow pad three analytical pillars of his strategy: What do they want, what do we want and what do we both want? The Chinese, he continued, wanted to “build up their world credentials,” to recover control of Taiwan and to get the United States out of Asia, while the United States wanted to succeed in Indochina, establish communication “to restrain Chinese expansion in Asia” and, in the future, “reduce threat of confrontation by China Super Power.” The United States and China both wanted “to reduce danger of confrontation and conflict, a more stable Asia, a restraint on U.S.S.R.”
In the Shanghai Communiqué, issued at the culmination of the meeting in Beijing, the continuing differences were highlighted, but both sides agreed to expand the common ground between them.
In developing a diplomatic strategy toward Iran, President Obama might respond to Nixon’s three questions as follows: Iran wants recognition of its revolution; an accepted role in its region; a nuclear program; the departure of the United States from the Middle East; and the lifting of sanctions. The United States wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons; security for Israel; a democratic evolution of Arab countries; the end of terrorism; and world access to the region’s oil and gas. Both Iran and the United States want stability in the region — particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.
With those assumptions as a skeleton, the shape of a final agreement with Iran is imaginable. The United States would agree to full recognition and respect for the Islamic Republic, and Iran would agree to regional cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both sides would agree to address the full range of bilateral disputes.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council could accept an Iranian civil nuclear program in return for Iran’s agreeing to grant inspectors full access to that program to assure that Iran did not build a nuclear weapon. Once international agencies had full access to Iran’s nuclear program, there could be a progressive reduction of the Security Council’s sanctions that are now in effect. Iran would agree to cease making threats against Israel, and the United States would agree to support efforts toward achieving a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
It would be important to make arrangements for Israel’s security; the exact shape of those measures would have to be worked out in the negotiations. An agreement in which there would be full access to Iran’s nuclear program, with a monitored limitation of 5 percent enrichment, would offer Israel additional reasons for confidence in the deal.
Both sides would agree to cooperate in reducing the influence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan; in combating drug trafficking; and in keeping open the routes through which energy flows to the world from the Persian Gulf. Both sides would agree that while wide differences between the two nations remained, those differences must be resolved peacefully.
The China analogy for American-Iranian relations falls short in some areas. The most important is that Mao was ready for an American approach, while Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is not. Instead, he is convinced that the United States will not work with Iran until his regime is gone.
For Iran’s leadership, the notion that the United States is bent on overthrowing its rulers is rooted in historical experience: the United States did overthrow Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, supported the Shah afterward, supported Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in the 1980s, and now backs increasing efforts to weaken and isolate Iran.
Reducing the malign influence of this legacy on the thinking of Ayatollah Khamenei will be essential to achieving any deal. Simply “keeping the door open to diplomacy” will not be sufficient. So the Iranian leader must be approached directly, but discreetly, by someone he trusts who conveys assurances from President Obama that covert operations and public pressure have been demonstrably reduced. The interlocutor might be a leader from a country in the region, enlisted when the American president felt the time was right.
Ayatollah Khamenei will have to be convinced by actions, not just messages. Just as Nixon halted covert action in Tibet before approaching China, a similar signal will be needed with Iran.
There is no guarantee that diplomacy will succeed. But that is also true of war. And only diplomacy can offer Iran’s current rulers a stake in building a secure future without a nuclear bomb. Only diplomacy can achieve America’s major objectives while avoiding the mistakes committed in Iraq or Vietnam.
William H. Luers, a career diplomat, served as United States ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela, and was president of the United Nations Association from 1999 to 2009. Thomas R. Pickering, an under secretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration, served as United States ambassador to Russia, Israel, Jordan and the United Nations.
Authors: WILLIAM H. LUERS and THOMAS R. PICKERING
Published: February 2, 2012