How to make peace with Iran

The case for diplomatic engagement rather than military confrontation with Iran is well-founded in principle and achievable in reality, says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam.

There seems to be a growing international consensus that the search for a “cold peace’ with Iran is a desirable, even essential approach on the part of the international community. Indeed, successive “war games” at specialised institutions in the United States have shown that bombing Iran’s nuclear installations is militarily unviable. Even some Israeli and American military officials have indicated the same.

Many Iranian analysts continue to see in the stance of the United States and some of its allies a permanent, if often veiled, threat to the country. At the same time, from the American side the “military option” does not appear to be realistic. On one side, it is a strategic tool, part of the gunboat diplomacy that has characterised US foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic for quite some time. On the other, it is continuously emphasised in order to signal to Iran that worse things than sanctions could be in store. At this stage, the war option is a rhetorical means to an end: getting concessions from Iran on the nuclear issue.

But that may be the wrong approach. A growing number of peace activists and scholars have been arguing that positive diplomacy is the only route beyond the current impasse. The rhetoric of threats and sanctions as a part of what President Obama called a “dual-track approach to Iran” is only effective if the second track, that of engagement, supersedes the rhetoric of threats. Positive diplomacy toward Iran links up exactly with the multilateral strategy that the Barack Obama administration has been stressing, most recently at the nuclear-security summit on 12-13 April 2010 in Washington. Now is the time to extend the scope of that multilateral approach to include Iran, in order to pre-empt any concerted movement toward war in the post-Obama period. 

A matter of trust

A number of substantial trust-building measures could be taken. The first is that both the European Union and the United States should make more effectively use of the amicable relations that Brazil, Japan and Turkey have with Iran. These three countries share a common commitment to find a diplomatic solution to the present standoff.

A series of recent diplomatic exchanges illustrates the point. Japan’s foreign minister Katsuya Okada, in a meeting with the influential speaker of Iran’s majlis (parliament) Ali Larijani on 24 February 2010, offered to provide Iran with enriched uranium as a means of easing tensions; Brazil’s President Lula has expressed his opposition to the renewal of United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran, and is scheduled to visit Tehran on 17 May; and Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who joins Lula at a gathering of the “Group of Fifteen”) describes Iran a “strategic partner” and is equally opposed to a further round of sanctions.

Brazil and Turkey are at present non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Japan retains considerable international influence. All three countries are crucial interlocutors with all the necessary diplomatic capital to position themselves as intermediaries between Iran and the United States.

By contrast, the European Union has disqualified itself from assuming such a role. The hardline statements of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel have helped deprive these countries of the diplomatic credibility that their predecessors were intent on keeping. Britain too has consistently failed to take a lead in international negotiations; whether the new prime minister David Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague will chart a different course remains to be seen.

In this overall situation, the responsibility for progress falls on the states that have retained their independence from the dominant western discourse of threat and coercion towards Iran, and who are as a result considered by the Iranians to be trustworthy brokers.

A different path

There is room for progress. Since the talks in October 2009 under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Iranian government has repeatedly stressed that it accepts in principle the idea of an exchange-deal whereby it would supply enriched uranium to be processed in Russia and then returned to the country; this is designed to ensure that it would be used for civil purposes rather than (as Iran’s western critics state or insinuate) military ones.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated this position in his speech on 3 May 2010 at the start of the month-long review conference in New York on the non-proliferation treaty. On the sidelines of an international conference in Tehran in April that had advocated “nuclear energy for all countries and atomic weapons for none”, Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesperson of Iran’s foreign ministry, reiterated the country’s wish “to exchange 3.5% enriched uranium, 1 tonne, for 100 kilogrammes of 20% enriched nuclear fuel inside Iran under the supervision of the IAEA”.

Those opposed to a coherent diplomatic outreach towards Iran make two arguments. First, they say that this should wait until Iran’s domestic political scene shifts. This however underestimates the nationalist sentiment that is shared across the political spectrum and which animates much of the support for Iran’s diplomatic stance on the nuclear issue.

For example, it was the leader of the opposition and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi who attacked the Ahmadinejad administration for even being prepared to consider the export of uranium to Russia for processing. The history of Iran, and the way it is embedded in the national consciousness, signal to any Iranian politician that compromising the country’s independence is unacceptable. All the upheavals in Iran’s modern history - the tobacco revolt of 1891, the constitutional revolt of 1906-09, the popular support for Mohammad Mossadeq in 1951-53, the revolution of 1978-79, and the post-election uprising of 2009 - were motivated by profound nationalistic fervour. Anyone wishing for a change of course from Tehran on matters of perceived core national interest will have a long wait (see Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic [C Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2008]).

Second, the critics of compromise with Iran say that with the Ahmadinejad administration in power there is no “partner for peace”. They are partially right, in that Iran’s current political constellation offers no space for a “grand gesture” comparable to Richard Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972. This is indeed part of the cost of the violent crackdown on the demonstrations that erupted after the disputed election of June 2009.

But in a long-term perspective it should be noted that Nixon’s opening came at the end of a realistic strategic assessment of the future of Chinese-American relations, one that went beyond the personalities who happened to be in power at the time. In the early 1960s, at the height of the cold war, the US considered destroying Chinese nuclear installations - only to accept that such a step would be militarily impossible and politically disastrous. It took time, but from that sober assessment the policy of engagement emerged.

If the same approach were conducted today, it would surely start with the acknowledgment of a fundamental geo-strategic reality: that there is no military solution to the nuclear issue. Iran, by virtue of its size and history, is fundamentally embedded in the region, with influence in all its major points of tension (and others further afield). The implication is that the time to begin exploring the road to a future “grand opening” with Iran is now.

These larger factors suggest that the case for peace is well-founded - and that   the leading politicians just need to seize it. A policy of engagement that replaces rhetoric with positive diplomacy in the interest even of a “cold peace” would be of immeasurable benefit to both sides. In 2010, peace with Iran is the single most important challenge facing the world community. Everyone has a stake in achieving this goal. The alternative scenario is death, destruction, and unimaginable mayhem, for “them” and for “us”.

About the author

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is reader in comparative politics and international realtions at SOAS, London. His latest book is A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism (C Hurst / Columbia University Press, 2010). His previous books include Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (C Hurst, 2008 / Columbia University Press, 2008). His website is here

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Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is lecturer in the comparative and international politics of the middle east at SOAS, London. His books include Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (C Hurst, 2008 / Columbia University Press, 2008)