WikiLeaks: U.S.-Iran Relations “Now What” Moment?

Huffington Post – Excerpts: It should now be clear that U.S. policy has never been a true engagement policy. By definition, engagement entails a long-term approach that abandons “sticks” and reassures both sides that their respective fears are unfounded. We realized early on that the administration was unlikely to adopt this approach. Instead, we pursued a “carrot and stick” strategy similar to the Bush administration, utilizing positive and negative inducements to convince Iran that changing its behavior would be its most rewarding and least harmful decision. The key difference between the Bush and Obama approach is an effort by the latter to fix tactical mistakes of the former. By disavowing regime change, striking diplomatic quid pro quos with key allies, and dropping preconditions to diplomacy with Iran, Obama changed tactics, but maintained an objective similar to his predecessor — making Iran yield on the nuclear issue through pressure. By changing tactics, the U.S. managed to build a consensus for international sanctions after talks collapsed in 2009 — something the Bush administration was unable to achieve.

Moreover, as the leaked cables show, the highest levels of the Obama administration never believed that diplomacy could succeed. While this does not cheapen Obama’s Nowruz message and other groundbreaking facets of his initial outreach, it does raise three important questions: How can U.S. policymakers give maximum effort to make diplomacy succeed if they admittedly never believed their efforts could work? Why was Iran expected to accept negotiation terms that relinquished its greatest strategic asset (1200 kg of LEU) without receiving a strategic asset of equal value in return? And what are the chances that Iran will take diplomacy seriously now that it knows the U.S. never really did? The Obama administration presented a solid vision, but never truly pursued it.

3. Paradoxically, WikiLeaks may have caused a “Now What?” moment in U.S.-Iran relations. For America, the strategic ambiguity in its status-quo Iran policy is no longer tenable. Wikileaks has provided Iran with clarity on the U.S. “carrot-stick” strategy. Now, Obama must choose between continuing the existing policy that has been unevenly applied (where are the carrots?), or recalibrating his policy to seriously consider the political, economic, security and nuclear incentives sought by Iran that any diplomatic solution will have to address. This does not imply that concessions must be made to Iran on each of these four fronts. Only robust diplomacy can determine whether it is in America’s interest to address Iranian concerns. But if Iran’s interests are not addressed in negotiations, diplomacy will be deemed one-sided and fail without being executed in good faith. This increases the likelihood that the aforementioned international coalition will begin to fragment — and that Iran will likely exploit those fragmentations.

For Iran, WikiLeaks should make it clear — it has no real friends, in the region or elsewhere. At best, it has leverage that is facilitated by business arrangements. Trust is in short supply. Going forward, this is likely to affect its strategic calculus vis-à-vis the U.S. and its nuclear program. While it is currently unclear whose hand will be strengthened in Tehran by these recent developments, one of two scenarios seems likely. Iran’s new-found sense of isolation may exacerbate existing domestic and international pressures to the point where it feels compelled to cut a deal. Indeed, Iranian decision-makers may decide that the WikiLeaks damage suffered by the U.S. and Iran have leveled the playing field, making it easier to reach an agreement without losing face. Conversely, the information gleaned from WikiLeaks could emasculate pragmatic conservatives in Iran, embolden hardliners and their preconceived notions of “foreign plots,” and reinforce Iran’s “don’t trust anyone” mentality that has become increasingly visible in its foreign policy since 2005.

As negotiations in Geneva commence this weekend, it would be wise for both sides to utilize lessons learned — from the previous round of diplomacy, and from the WikiLeaks debacle — to maximize the chances for successful diplomacy. Ambassador John Limbert, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran during my time at the State Department, used to (half) joke about doing whatever it took to keep some form of rationality in our Iran policy. If any good is to come out of the inexcusable WikiLeaks security breach, perhaps it will be something as simple as taking Ambassador Limbert’s advice to heart.

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