POMED Notes: “Moving to Decision: U.S. Policy Toward Iran”
On Thursday, February 7, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted an event “Moving to Decision: U.S. Policy Toward Iran” prompted by the release of Ambassador James Jeffrey’s strategic report on U.S. policy toward Iran. The ambassador was joined by Ambassador Thomas Pickering to discuss the challenge of halting nuclear proliferation in Iran. One key takeaway that Ambassador Jeffrey imparted was that regardless of how effectively Washington resolves the nuclear issue, the U.S. will remain engaged in a long term struggle with Iran because the two states’ interests run counter to each other.
Continue reading for full notes, or click here for the PDF.
Ambassador Jeffrey continued by saying that Washington “needs to get used to the fact that a hegemonic Iran won’t go away.” Regime change is not a realistic goal for the U.S. to pursue. Instead, the U.S. should remain prepared to tactically, even militarily, challenge Iran whenever Tehran seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East. Jeffrey believes it is in our geopolitical best interest (vis-à-vis Iran) to ensure Assad does not remain in power in Syria. Finally, he stated that Washington must do a better job of distinguishing between what Iranian actions are (secretly) tolerable and which are unacceptable.
Ambassador Pickering likewise views regime change as an impossibility, particularly because the American public would not be amenable to a new Middle East conflict. The ambassador also dismissed a policy of containment, which he equated to acceptance of Iran as a nuclear power. Thus, he sees tremendous pressure on the United States to get the negotiations right.
Attendees will best remember Pickering’s metaphor invoking rabbits and horses. He referenced an old Texas saying that one cannot trade a rabbit for a horse; rather, one can trade a rabbit for a rabbit or a horse for a horse. He views the negotiations as the US offering a rabbit (reducing sanctions) for a horse (Iran completely dismantles its nuclear program). Instead, negotiations should center either on mutual step-by-step compromises (rabbits for rabbits) or one grand bargain (the nuclear program for a larger package than what the US has yet offered).
The first question asked of the ambassadors was what Washington should do in the event of a “Persian Spring”? Both men agreed that unfortunately Iran putting down mass protests is something the U.S. “can live with.” While Washington could offer recognition and sympathy to the regime’s opposition, it should be careful not to support or back the opposition at the expense of worsening nuclear negotiations with Tehran. Pickering also pointed out that it may be to the benefit of Iranian protesters that they not receive Washington’s endorsement.
Questioned whether Iran could change its policy in the absence of regime change, both ambassadors agreed that it could. Furthermore, Pickering noted that Tehran will be true to its word if an actual agreement is reached. Asked about whether the U.S. should accept the legitimacy of the Iranian regime as a trust-building measure in negotiations, both men felt that Tehran would be skeptical of Washington’s intentions. Pickering noted that Ayatollah Khamenei should ensure fair elections in accordance with Iranian law in response to a question asking how Khamenei could improve his domestic popularity. Finally, asked what Iran’s acknowledged sphere of influence should be (following the Cold War metaphor), Pickering said Iran’s aspirations should be limited to the bounds of its borders, and furthermore that the U.S. cannot allow the Sunni-Shi’ite divide to widen by deferring to Iranian influence over Arab Shi’ites.