Great Decisions: Talking to Our Enemies

 In Iran

Yesterday, I went out to the Rossmoor Retirement Community in Walnut Creek to speak to their “Great Decisions” group about diplomacy with Iran. I had never heard of Great Decisions before and I thought they had a great grassroots model of foreign policy education.

Great Decisions, a program of the Foreign Policy Association, provides a briefing book and brief videos on a number of key foreign policy topics each year, and people form discussion groups as a way to delve more deeply into pressing issues.  The Rossmoor group meets weekly and brings in outside speakers to add another dimension to their discussions. I was this week’s speaker on their topic of “Talking to Our Enemies.”

I was impressed by the level of engagement in the Rossmoor community. More than sixty people came out on a rainy Tuesday morning to learn about and discuss US foreign policy.  In talking with some of the attendees, who were grateful and enthusiastic, I learned that residents of Rossmoor are always finding new ways to stay active politically, whether through their 800-member Democratic club or 200-member Grandparents for Peace organization.  I was inspired to meet people who prioritized gaining a deeper understanding of our foreign policy challenges and hope the residents of Rossmoor can provide a good model of civic engagement for the rest of us.

I decided to focus on the US’s relationship with Iran, as that has been a top priority for Peace Action West in our advocacy work and is one of the most urgent situations calling for sustained, constructive dialogue. I started by setting up the framework that the Bush administration is operating with a flawed definition of diplomacy and the American people need a bold vision of what a constructive relationship with Iran could look like. I explored the perspectives of both the Iranian and American governments, and demonstrated how options other than diplomacy, such as military action or containment, have little or no possibility for success. I wanted to help start the dialogue about what successful diplomacy actually looks like and give people some ideas of how the US could engage with Iran in a productive way:

In order to engage in constructive diplomacy, the environment needs to change. Both the Iranian and US governments need to stop engaging in hostile rhetoric and saber-rattling. As we saw with the recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz, a minor conflict has the potential to erupt into something far more serious. The heated exchanges between the Bush administration and Ahmadinejad create an atmosphere in which minor tensions can escalate far more easily. Both groups need to approach the relationship with a better understanding of each party’s motivations and underlying issues that are influencing the negotiations.

One critical step the US has not taken is to meet with the Iranian government directly. Multilateral efforts can be part of an effective strategy, but they are not a substitute for direct, one on one negotiations. The US’s insistence on preconditions for negotiation, namely that Iran must suspend its uranium enrichment, is an unnecessary obstacle to engagement. Diplomacy must be viewed as a tool to elicit changes in behavior rather than a reward that is only given when one side relents.

In a recent opinion editorial in the New York Times, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, who worked in the National Security Council under the Bush administration, outline a possible framework for productive negotiations.  They propose that the US would need to clarify that it doesn’t seek to overthrow the current regime, pledge to stop unilateral sanctions if Iran holds up its end of the bargain, normalize relations and remove Iran from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. In exchange, Iran would need to address proliferation risks from its nuclear program, allow intrusive inspections, support a just and lasting settlement between Israel and Palestine, and stop providing military training and supplies to terrorist organizations.  They warn that “incrementalism,” a slower approach favored by some proponents of engagement, is not enough to overcome lingering mistrust between our two countries; all the issues must be on the table.

Negotiations take time, dedication and tenacity. Both sides need to understand that they will not get everything they want and will have to back away from their absolute positions.  However, even an imperfect deal can be beneficial for all parties involved, and it is far better than any alternative option and the most likely way to get sustained improvement in our relationship.

I closed my presentation by talking about the public’s role in encouraging diplomacy with Iran by pressuring our policymakers to deliver a bold vision and be willing to work outside of the current framework of our foreign policy. 

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