Time for a U.S.-Iranian 'Grand Bargain'
Such rapprochement would be most effectively embodied in the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian "grand bargain." A grand bargain approach means putting all of the principal bilateral differences between the United States and Iran on the table at the same time and agreeing to resolve them as a package.
- For Iran, this would mean addressing U.S. concerns about the Islamic Republic's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism, opposition to a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and problematic role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- For the United States, this would mean clarifying America's willingness to have normal relations with the Islamic Republic and recognizing a legitimate regional and international role for Iran. In particular, this would mean the extension of U.S. security assurances to Iran -- effectively, a U.S. commitment not to use force to change the borders or form of government of the Islamic Republic.
The reciprocal commitments entailed in a U.S.-Iranian grand bargain would almost certainly be implemented over time and in phases. The key, though, is that all of the commitments would be agreed up front so that both sides would know what they were getting.
To reinforce their commitments to one another, the United States and the Islamic Republic would also cooperate in dealing with problems of regional security. In particular, U.S.-Iranian cooperation on postconflict stabilization in Iraq should be the basis for erecting a multilateral regional security forum for the Persian Gulf and the Middle East more broadly. Such a forum would go beyond U.S. collective security efforts in the Middle East -- essentially a series of bilateral arrangements with allies like Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf Arab states -- to create a cooperative security framework for the region. This framework would function as a regional analogue to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.Similarly, renewed U.S.-Iranian cooperation over Afghanistan could be the basis for expanding cooperation on other security issues in Central and South Asia. During their dialogue with U.S. counterparts over Afghanistan in 2001-03, Iranian diplomats indicated their interest in working with the United States to establish a regional security framework focused on Central Asia. Other senior Iranian officials raised such a possibility with us in 2003-04. Unfortunately, prospects for U.S. leadership on multilateral security cooperation in Central Asia has been complicated by the maturation in recent years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- in which Iran now has observer status. This is another issue on which the Bush administration's refusal to move on comprehensive diplomacy with Iran has imposed unnecessary costs on the U.S. position.
Iran's hydrocarbon resources are truly impressive. The Islamic Republic has the second-largest proven reserves of conventional crude oil in the world (after Saudi Arabia). Its Ministry of Petroleum currently states the country's proven oil reserves at roughly 131 billion barrels. (Oil & Gas Journal lists Canada as holding the world's second-largest oil reserves, roughly 179 billion barrels, putting Iran in third place. However, the Journal's estimate for Canada includes 175 billion barrels of oil sands reserves. This justifies the statement that Iran holds the world's second-largest reserves of conventional crude oil.)In addition, Iran has the world's second-largest proven reserves of natural gas (after Russia). The Islamic Republic's proven gas reserves are currently estimated at 940 trillion cubic feet, and there is considerable upside potential for discoveries of more gas deposits.If Iran's oil and gas resources are aggregated by converting reserves statements for natural gas into barrels of oil equivalent, Saudi Arabia and Iran are virtually equal in terms of resource potential: Saudi Arabia has 302.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent in proven reserves of crude oil and natural gas, while Iran has 301.7 billion barrels of oil equivalent. These figures dramatically eclipse current estimates of the overall hydrocarbon base for Russia -- the world's other hydrocarbon "superpower" -- which comes in third with a total of 198.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent in proven reserves of crude oil and natural gas.
A second deficit in the current U.S. policy debate over Iran is its disregard of a historical record showing that since the death of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 the Islamic Republic has been increasingly capable of defining its national security and foreign policy in terms of national interests. While it may not be easy for some Americans to acknowledge, most of those interests are perfectly legitimate -- to be free from the threat of attack or interference in Iran's internal affairs and to have the political order of the Islamic Republic accepted by the world's most militarily powerful state as Iran's legitimate government.Moreover, the Islamic Republic has for many years shown itself capable of acting in instrumentally rational ways to defend and advance its interests. As Americans, we may not like some (or many) of the strategic and tactical choices that the Iranian leadership has made in pursuing these national security and foreign policy interests -- e.g., its extensive links to a multiplicity of political factions and associated armed militias in Iraq, its support for groups like Hizballah and Hamas that the U.S. government designates as terrorist organizations, or its pursuit of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities that would give Tehran at least a nuclear weapons "option." These choices work against U.S. interests -- and, on some issues, antagonize American sensibilities. They are not, however, "irrational," particularly in the face of what many Iranian elites believe is continuing hostility from their neighbors as well the United States to the Iranian revolution and the political order it generated.
Second, in an atmosphere of ongoing uncertainty about America's ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic, Iranian leaders will continue working to defend their core security interests in ways that are guaranteed to be maximally provocative to the United States. Candid conversations with Iranian officials confirm what long observation of Iranian policies strongly suggests: lacking significant conventional military capabilities, Iran pursues an "asymmetric" national security strategy.This strategy includes the use of proxy actors -- political, paramilitary, and terrorist -- in neighboring states and elsewhere, to ensure that those states will not be used as anti-Iranian platforms, providing the Islamic Republic a measure of strategic depth it otherwise lacks. Iran's asymmetric strategy also includes developing unconventional military capabilities (missiles, chemical weapons, and at least a nuclear weapons "option"). No U.S. administration, of either party, would be able to sustain détente with Iran as it pursues such policies.
First, while the United States and the Soviet Union were roughly at parity in their military capabilities, the United States is and will remain vastly superior to Iran in every category of military power, conventional or otherwise. Almost 30 years after the Iranian revolution, the Islamic Republic is incapable of projecting significant conventional military force beyond its borders, and would be severely challenged to mount a conventional defense against U.S. invasion. Thus, absent a broader strategic understanding with Washington, Tehran would continue to assume and act as if the ultimate objective of U.S. policy toward Iran were the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
Alternatively, other proponents of engagement argue that Washington and Tehran should pursue step-by-step or issue-specific cooperation as a way of building confidence and slowly improving relations. But arguments for incrementalism overlook the historical record of U.S.-Iranian relations since the Iranian revolution. While every U.S. administration since 1979 has sought to isolate the Islamic Republic diplomatically and press it economically, issue-specific cooperation has also been pursued by each of those administrations: by the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations in Lebanon, the Clinton administration in Bosnia, and the current Bush administration in Afghanistan. In all of these cases, Iran delivered much -- not all, but much -- of what Washington asked.A number of Iranian officials -- reflecting a variety of political perspectives and occupying a range of positions during the Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad presidencies -- have told us that they anticipated that tactical cooperation with the United States would lead to a broader, strategic opening between the two nations. But this never happened.
In all of the cases cited above, tactical cooperation between the United States and Iran did not fall apart because Tehran failed to deliver, or because there were no authoritative or pragmatic Iranians to deal with. Rather, tactical cooperation fell apart because U.S. administrations broke it off, usually because of concerns about domestic political blowback in the United States or because of a terrorist attack or arms shipment that might have been linked to Iran. In that context, the repeated imposition of sanctions against Iran by the United States only reinforced Iranian perceptions that the United States is not interested in living with the Islamic Republic.Thus, while tactical cooperation with Iran has periodically provided short-term benefits to the United States, the repeated cutting off of these talks by Washington has shattered confidence on the Iranian side, led to hard-line decisions and policies in both the United States and the Islamic Republic, and worsened the overall relationship. Without a strategic understanding of where the United States and Iran intend to go in their bilateral relations, there will always be a terrorist attack, arms shipment, or nasty statement that can be used in Washington as justification for cutting off whatever tactical cooperation might have been going on and imposing still more sanctions on Tehran.
Pursuing a U.S.-Iranian grand bargain should start with the definition of a strategic framework for improving relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic -- in effect, an analogue to the Shanghai Communiqué that conditioned the strategic rapprochement between the United States and China in the 1970s. To meet both sides' strategic needs in a genuinely comprehensive manner, a framework structuring a U.S.-Iranian grand bargain would have to address at least three sets of issues:
- U.S. security interests, including stopping what Washington sees as Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, its support for terrorism, its opposition to a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its problematic role in Iraq and Afghanistan;
- Iran's security interests, including extending U.S. security assurances to the Islamic Republic, lifting unilateral U.S. and multilateral sanctions against Iran, and acknowledging the Islamic Republic's place in the regional and international order; and
- developing a cooperative approach to regional security.