Dealing with Tehran: Assessing U.S. Diplomatic Options Toward Iran
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More generally, while Iranians have shown considerable interest in increased political openness and improved economic opportunities, there is little evidence that Iranian society is presently in a “pre-revolutionary” state. Even though pro-democracy activists and organizations opposed to the regime called for Iranians to boycott the most recent presidential elections in June 2005—a call endorsed by President Bush—60 percent of the eligible electorate went to the polls, reversing a trend of declining participation displayed in presidential, parliamentary, and local council elections since the late 1990s. (And, a 60 percent participation rate is roughly comparable to the participation rate in the 2004 presidential election in the United States.) Moreover, Iranian society is highly stratified and there is no single charismatic and politically effective opposition figure who could rally diverse economic and social groups around a simple anti-authoritarian message. Additionally, the chaos and violence in neighboring Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow have dampened whatever enthusiasm there might otherwise be in Iran for radical political change. In this context, U.S. and other Western efforts to support pro-democracy and human rights groups opposed to the current regime are, by definition, tainted by historically conditioned Iranian suspicions of foreign intervention.
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Moreover, that is why the predictable recommendation of eminent persons’ groups on how to improve U.S.-Iranian relations—an incremental, issue-by-issue or step-by-step approach—entirely misses the point. Tactical cooperation with Iran on specific issues where American and Iranian interests converge has been tried by successive U.S. 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 cases, such cooperation could not be leveraged into a broader strategic opening; usually this was because U.S. policymakers allowed domestic political considerations or other foreign policy interests to undermine diplomatic initiatives toward Iran. To assume that an incremental approach somehow can resolve the current standoff between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear activities ignores the lessons of this history.
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On the other hand, the United States should not passively accept Iranian nuclearization. In private conversations, strategic and foreign policy elites in both the Gulf Cooperation Council’s member states and Israel express concern that acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would embolden Tehran to use its influence and strategic resources more aggressively against the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Other assessments highlight the risks that Iranian nuclearization would prompt states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities, effectively eviscerating nonproliferation efforts both regionally and globally. While one reasonably can question whether such an outcome is inevitable, it seems incontrovertible that Iranian nuclearization would, at a minimum, raise tensions and greatly complicate strategic calculations in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
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The possibility of al Qaeda figures finding refuge in Iran was an issue that administration hardliners regularly used to undermine expanded tactical cooperation between Tehran and Washington. In the course of the U.S.-Iranian dialogue over Afghanistan, U.S. officials exhorted their Iranian counterparts to take steps to prevent al Qaeda and Taliban operatives from seeking sanctuary in Iran. In response, Iran deployed additional security forces to its border with Afghanistan and took several hundred fugitives into custody; the identities of these individuals were documented to the United Nations. In 2002, a number of these individuals, of Afghan origin, were repatriated to the new, post-Taliban Afghan government; others, of Saudi origin, were repatriated to Saudi Arabia. In the same year, a group of senior al Qaeda figures managed to find their way from Afghanistan into Iran, most likely via longstanding smuggling and human trafficking routes into Iran's Baluchistan province. In response to U.S. concerns, Tehran eventually took these individuals into custody and, in the spring of 2003, offered to exchange them for a small group of senior commanders among the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cadres in Iraq. Even though the MEK has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, the administration refused to consider any such exchange.
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In an insightful analysis of political discontent in Iran as reflected in nonparticipation in elections and the deliberate casting of "spoiled" ballots, Abbas William Samii concludes that effecting fundamental changes in the political order of the Islamic Republic "could take a generation and is by no means guaranteed." Writing a year before Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, Samii notes that "the generation of revolutionaries who opposed the monarchy is getting older and dying out, and some two-thirds of the population is under thirty. Presumably, these youngsters with no experience of the revolution will bring about permanent reforms to the system once—and if—they become politically active and involved. Yet there is a generation between these two, and it includes young conservatives in their forties with common experiences forged during the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War. Just as the revolutionary clerics had networks based on their affiliations to different theological institutions, this generation has networks based on affiliation with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Basij, and the regular armed forces."
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Iran's resource base is truly impressive. If one converts Iran's reserves of natural gas—the second-largest in the world, after Russia's—into barrels of oil equivalent (boe) and adds them to Iran's proven reserves of conventional oil—the second-largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia15—Iran's hydrocarbon resources are effectively equal to those of Saudi Arabia and significantly greater than those of Russia.16 Moreover, Iran's low rates of production of crude oil and natural gas, relative to its reserves base, suggest that the Islamic Republic is perhaps the only major energy-producing state with the resource potential to increase production of both oil and gas by orders of magnitude over the next decade or so. Iran, however, cannot realize this potential without significant infusions of investment capital and transfers of technology from abroad. Since the mid- 1990s, U.S. policy has sought to constrain the development of Iran's hydrocarbon resources by barring U.S. energy companies from doing business there and threatening European companies undertaking projects in Iran with secondary sanctions under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. These policies, combined with a problematic investment climate in the Islamic Republic, have limited investment flows and transfers of technology into Iran's oil and gas sectors. Now, however, China is putting large amounts of capital into Iranian energy projects and Russia has agreed to help Iran develop its largely untapped potential as a producer and exporter of natural gas. One way or another, Iran will play an increasingly important role in the global energy balance over the next quarter century. In this regard, the key foreign policy question is: What external players will help Iran out of its U.S.-constructed "box" and reap significant strategic gains for doing so?