One way the mainstream media breaks down coverage of Iran policy is to place people (both inside and outside government) into two neat categories – those who want to engage Iran and those who want to isolate Iran. Admittedly, there are other ways to create camps on the Iran issue – use of force vs. diplomacy, for example – but the engage vs. isolation dichotomy is the one I most often read about those at State purportedly chomping at the bit to negotiate with an Iranian, any Iranian. Let me offer another way to look at the issue.
I’ll start with a simple premise: diplomacy without incentives and disincentives (carrots and sticks) is just talking. Put another way, diplomacy without the proper mix will accomplish nothing when dealing with an adversary. The question then becomes one of establishing both sides of the equation – incentives and disincentives -- before any negotiation. So those who want to divide the world into engage vs. isolate camps are missing the point. In fact, it is not a binary choice. Instead engagement and isolation are two different sides of the same coin.
Experience tells us that without creating significant leverage, you will fail in a negotiation – unless of course you face a weak or unthinking opponent. So, unless the U.S. creates the right conditions for successful negotiations with Iran, we won’t get anyplace. For example, part of creating the right conditions is to make clear to friends and the Iranian government that the U.S. has interests in the Gulf it does not plan to abandon. Carriers in the Gulf and building strong military relationships with allies in the region are one way to demonstrate the seriousness with which we take those interests, and our readiness to assist our friends against any threats. Arms sales are just one element to building those strong relationships; we are now working with Congress to gain approval for sales to bolster our allies. Going after Iranian-backed networks targeting our troops with sophisticated improvised explosives is yet another way in which we show our determination to defend broader interests, as well as protect our troops.
On the diplomatic side, Secretary Rice met September 28 in New York during the UN General Assembly with Foreign Ministers from China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom—the so-called P5+1 (easier than writing out the names of each country when talking about this group). They repeated the 2006 commitment to a dual track diplomatic approach to Iran. Basically, this translates to increasing pressure (vias sanctions and other diplomatic means) on Iran to come clean with the world and meet its UN and other obligations, while at the same time offering Iran direct talks on the nuclear issue if it suspends its nuclear enrichment activities. The offer to Iran also includes the prospect of assistance with the development of a peaceful, civil nuclear program if it agrees to comply with its international obligations and come clean with the international community regarding its nuclear past and generous economic incentives for Iran, including support for Iran’s ascension to the World Trade Organization. The P5+1 proposal remains on the table. It is also worth noting that we have made it clear that the Iranians can also bring up whatever other topics they wish in these talks. We will certainly be prepared to bring up other issues of concern to us. The group’s only condition for starting talks is that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment work; for our part, we will suspend UN Security Council sanctions for the lifespan of the negotiations. We have even been flexible in considering the duration of negotiations/suspension.
Until that point, we will continue working with the Treasury Department and key international financial institutions to ensure that Iran does not abuse the international financial system to fund its proliferation and terrorism activities. We are joined in efforts to pressure Iran outside of the UN framework by allies such as France, which recently announced its support for imposing broader EU sanctions on the Iran.
I hope that gives you an idea of how we are working to establish both sides of the equation – incentives and disincentives. In our view diplomacy still has a lot of legs left, but in order for it to succeed we need to keep working both sides of the isolation/engagement coin.