By Michael Shank and Wayne Gilchrest
U.S.-Iran diplomacy got a boost recently with the White House nomination of Samantha Power as the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. While Power, who chaired President Barack Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board, is not shy about military intervention, her work with the White House on multilateral affairs gives hope for a better diplomatic hand at the Security Council. This, in addition to the fact that moderate presidential candidate Hasan Rowhani was declared the winner on Saturday with over 50 percent of the vote, becoming Iran’s next president, heralds good tidings for improved diplomacy with Tehran.
These trends also build on recent improvements to the sanctions regime. This month, the administration acknowledged the need to ensure that at least humanitarian aid and medicine can circumnavigate sanctions policy (which have all but crippled the socio-economic fabric of Iranian society), as well as some basic communications technology that Washington thinks could be useful in any future Iranian revolution or resistance movement.
The trick now will be to convince foreign companies and countries that they can, in fact, find their way through the morass of mostly sanctioned means for delivery. Few banks, trading firms, and institutions on the ground in Iran are free to regulate or receive these desperately needed supplies. U.S. sanctions on Iran have made most interactions illegal or near impossible.
While medicines and communications technologies may help create a less intractable negotiating environment, more is needed to build trust and ensure a functioning and effective diplomatic track. Every successful diplomatic effort that the U.S. ever engaged in – whether it was President Richard Nixon with China or President John F. Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev – required a willingness to either negotiate face-to-face or negotiate more flexibly and responsively.
On Iran, we are hardly witnessing either, thus scuttling any chance of successful diplomatic negotiations. This is despite calls from all over Washington – by the Iran Project, which is composed of America’s most respected national security officials, the Atlantic Council, Woodrow Wilson Center and the International Crisis Group – for direct bilateral talks and intensive, continuous, technical-level negotiations.
The administration, meanwhile, is doing direct, bilateral, intensive and continuous diplomacy with Russia in an effort to deal, albeit reactively, with Syria. We should be doing the same with Iran, proactively and preventively, in an effort to deal with…Iran. And there must be a quid pro quo. The only way we’ll get our preferred suspensions, limits and caps on nuclear-related percentages, stockpiles and centrifuges, is if we recognize their rights to enrichment for peaceful purposes.
Any claims that the U.S. government is exhausting, or has exhausted, diplomatic opportunities with Iran are deeply misleading. If anything, we passed up, instead of pursuing, some of the most effective diplomatic engagement in the last couple of years when we turned down Turkey and Brazil’s deal with Iran in 2010, which was brokered at our request.
This is why we need more “soft power” by Power herself in the Security Council. She knows how the rest of the world now views us; especially after U.S. military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia failed to leave these countries measurably more stable or secure. In an interview with one of us, when Power worked with Barack Obama in the Senate, she suggested that, “people around the world are keeping score [and] see our inconsistencies across countries, or between words and follow-through,” and called for “a very bold investment in other people; where it’s clear that it’s not about us and it’s not about us imposing our model on the rest of the world.”
On Iran, Power’s message couldn’t be more poignant. Congress has been so hungry to enact crippling sanctions on Iran, it has neglected to study past lessons from Iraq, or observe with compassion the current reality in Iran. We have left the country broken, in desperation and disarray, and have hurt and harmed the very working and middle class constituencies that were previously predisposed to find favor with the U.S. Our sanctions are culpable, furthermore, for a marked rise in violent crime, and an increase in robberies, prostitution and drug addiction. Iranians know this.
Going forward, we must remember that Iran offers opportunities for engagement that were not as available with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda or the Taliban. That is why it is worth pursuing, while still possible, trade in food, medicine and medical supplies, as well as sports, cultural, academic, media, and technology exchanges. These are the very things Power was calling for years ago and ones we trust she’ll pursue again when positioned in New York.
As Iran prepares for its new president, and as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad steps down, it is critically important that we engage in direct bilateral diplomacy with his successor. In doing so, we must care about the country as a whole. If we make this our agenda, we will undoubtedly see and value a different tack: One that is much less about crippling an economy and middle-class Iranian communities, and much more about winning hearts and minds through engagement and opportunity. That is the only way forward – and a powerful one at that.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Former Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest represented Maryland’s 1st congressional district for 10 years in the House of Representatives and was the co-chair of the House Dialogue Caucus.