Francis Matthew– Editor at Large — gulfnews
It would be a good thing for the US to restart diplomacy with Iran. Engagement is the right way to go, and the continuing Washington hysteria in favour of sanctions leading to a military assault is no more than neo-con wishful thinking.
This aggressive view persists from decades of anti-Iran politics in Washington, and is a legacy of eight years of former president George W. Bush’s simplistic view of the world, in which the US saw any disagreement with its policy as a desire to oppose the US.
The ludicrous “you are with us or against us” position on Iran meant that generations of US politicians and policy planners have grown up with no understanding of how to engage with Iran. There is no institutional understanding in the State Department or White House on how to find parts of the complicated Iranian political structure with which to work to find a way forward.
In addition, the outgoing head of the State Department’s Iran desk has been outspoken on how he thinks that engagement will fail. John Limbert was one of the 52 hostages in 1979, and has spent many years following Iranian affairs.
A fluent Farsi speaker, he was appointed under President Barack Obama’s administration to be the State Department’s pointman for engagement with Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration.
When he stepped down last week, Limbert told the Washington Post’s Barbara Slavin that “we are not in the place we wanted to be”, observing that while the Obama administration is still determined to pursue negotiations, he fears that both countries will regress to the dysfunctional pattern that has kept them at odds for three decades.
“For 30 years, careers were made both here and in Tehran by how nasty you could be to the other side. So how are you going to change that if you do not get an immediate result?”
The Obama administration started with a very hopeful policy that was firmly in favour of engagement. It recognised that talks with Iran on the nuclear stand-off should start with little conditions, and it also recognised that Iran wanted to talk other issues where the US could find common ground with Iran such as dealing with Afghanistan, or Iraq, or shared interests in fighting terrorism or the drug trade, or wider Gulf regional issues, and maybe even restarting trade and investment.
The high point of this new approach were the Geneva talks in October 2009 when Iran agreed to ship most of its enriched uranium to France or Russia. But the Iranian government was unable to deliver on its undertaking, and Ahmadinejad took some delight in finding ways to dodge the deal. However, US policy-makers were unable to engage with elements in Iran that might have kept the idea alive.
And as Limbert leaves the State Department, Slavin sees hawkish policy-makers like White House official Dennis Ross (who knows more about Israel and little about Iran), and non-proliferation experts like Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore as driving an aggressive US policy with little interest in engagement, with Obama himself blaming the Ahmadinejad administration for failing to respond to his peace overtures.
However, this gloomy view is directly contradicted by Robert Dreyfus writing in The Nation, who sees a new season of diplomacy opening in the autumn. He quotes the State Department this week saying that it is about to restart the aborted talks, probably at the technical level before escalating to more senior levels.
“We are fully prepared to follow up with Iran on specifics … as well as the broader issues,” said the State Department spokesman. This desire for re-engaging may have wider international backing, as Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s chief negotiator has also spoken of the EU being willing to have new talks with Iran.
So it looks as though the diplomats may have regained the initiative in Washington from the hawks, but they still have a long way to go. Iran is not an easy country to deal with, particularly since its own decision-making is so involved. And anyone trying to drag America to engage with Iran will face serious opposition from the hawkish policy makers trained over three decades, and the deeply entrenched Israeli lobby.
There is no doubt that a majority view in Washington assumes that military conflict with Iran is going to happen. The extreme end of those who make this assumption have even gone so far as to try to anticipate the obvious Arab opposition to an attack on Iran by recommending that it is essential that the Obama administration make a deal with Netanyahu’s government that it will support such an adventure is it gets the Israelis to make substantial concessions to the Palestinians.
The US must “craft a strategy promising much more than the destruction of (probably some but not all) Iranian nuclear assets. The US should insist that a military strike by its close ally be part of a broader “grand bargain” that also finally resolves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, offers Andy Zelleke of Harvard’s Kennedy School in the Christian Science Monitor.
This bizarre attempt to buy off the Arabs in advance makes two very wild assumptions: that the Arabs would agree to link a deal in Palestine with the appalling increase in regional tension that would follow an attack on Iran, and that the notorious Netanyahu government would agree to such a deal (and deliver even if it did make some false promise).
Francis Matthew is the Editor-at-Large of Gulf News, focusing on social and political writing and interviews. He has worked in the Middle East as a journalist and editor for almost 30 years, with occasional spells in Europe. He worked in Lebanon and Egypt in the 1980s, and came to the UAE for the first time in 1983 till 1987. He came back to Dubai in 1995 to be the Editor of Gulf News, helping to build its position as the Gulf’s largest English language newspaper, and has lived in the city ever since. Francis has a BA in Arabic and Islamic History from Exeter University, UK.