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Ahead of Revived Talks, U.S. Wavers: Diplomacy or Sanctions for Iran?

Even as negotiations are slated to resume between Iran and the West, hawks in the U.S. Congress are ramping up pressure for new sanctions and punitive measures against Iran.

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Inter Press Service

A former top State Department official singled out diplomatic engagement as the best available option for ending decades of "mistrust and misunderstanding" between Washington and Tehran.

"Take the sanctions pressure and turn it into a useful diplomatic tool to begin serious diplomatic negotiations with Iran," Thomas Pickering said at a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing in the Capitol.

"Such a new direction will require much care and management of the rhetoric to cause the diplomatic process (to) move forward," said Pickering, a former U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs as well as ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, India, Israel and Jordan.

Pickering presented his remarks to the influential Senate committee on the same day that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi reportedly announced that talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) would resume on April 13.

In February, Iran indicated it was ready to resume negotiations after a hiatus of more than a year. The United States and European Union (EU) responded with cautious optimism, but experts warned that few substantial results should be expected from just one meeting, especially given recently heightened tensions.

Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister and a serious advocate for diplomacy with Iran, called the resumption of talks a welcome development. Still, he told Agence France-Presse, "Don't expect there will be a quick resolution of issues, because the gulf of mistrust is so enormously deep."

At a Capitol Hill briefing on February 22, Hans Blix, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stated that revived talks should focus first on defusing tensions over Tehran's nuclear program to avert possible Israeli military strikes.

"We don't expect too much now, but we need to defuse the most acute things and prepare the road for further talks," he said.

Although he emphasised that the threat of force should be kept on the table, striking Iran militarily would do little to impede any alleged Iranian nuclear ambitions, said General James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Wednesday hearing, reflecting a general consensus among high-level military officials.

"My worry is that it's not going to do much to change their mind," he said.

The matter of Iran's leadership

Others who testified before the Senate committee were extremely pessimistic about the possibility of successful diplomacy with Iran, or at least while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei holds power.

"Herein lies our policy conundrum: No nuclear deal with Tehran can be made without Khamenei, but it appears almost equally unlikely that any deal can be made with him," according to Karim Sadjadpour, a policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sadjadpour argued that certain measures could slow Iran's alleged nuclear activities until regime change takes place in Iran, although he does not advocate that the U.S. or other foreign powers aggressively pursue such an outcome.

"The goal of coercive diplomacy should be to significantly slow Iran's nuclear progress, and contain their regional political influence, until the regime is eventually forced to change – or is changed – under the weight of its own internal contradictions and economic malaise," said Sadjadpour.

According to Pickering, the idea that pursuing regime change in Iran can bring about positive results is "far fetched and highly unlikely", because U.S. history with "changing regimes has been pretty parlous".

Since the Iranian perception that the United States has a policy of regime change appears to hinder progress in dealing with Iran's nuclear programme, "the U.S. will need to consider how and when that policy, or the Iranian perception of it, should come off the table," he added.

Beyond sanctions

A House proposal to impose measures more extreme than mere "crippling" economic sanctions, such as making it illegal for any U.S. official to even speak to an Iranian official, as well as a non-binding resolution that rules out containing Iran, suggests that lawmakers are working to limit the president's options with Iran.

This trend has compelled former defence officials to speak out against the possible dire consequences of the draconian proposals.  

Richard L. Klass, a retired Air Force colonel, wrote today that the anti-containment resolution led by a bipartisan group of senators — Bob Casey (D-PA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) — "confuses the issue" and "could be taken to authorise the use of force if Iran gets a nuclear weapon".

"The resolution blocks a containment strategy and endorses U.S. military action regardless of any other circumstances," wrote the former defence official.

Some lawmakers have also made some limited attempts to ease tensions.

This month, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) proposed lifting the ban on U.S.-Iranian contact and appointing a U.S. representative for Iran devoted to pursuing all diplomatic avenues to stave off Iranian nuclear weapon acquisition and war.

In late March, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky blocked a bill that required unanimous consent and was designed to speed up the imposition of further sanctions on Iran. He objected after his own amendment, meant to ensure that nothing in the bill could be construed as authorisation for force against Iran or Syria, was refused, Reuters reported.

While Congress appears overwhelmingly in favour of further punitive measures against Iran as long as the country continues to make nuclear advances that the United States and Israel consider suspicious and unnecessary, some still view the resumption of talks in April as a window for positive possibilities.

Pickering ended his remarks today by quoting an Iranian "friend" involved in Tehran's foreign policy. "The historical record shows that every time we have been ready, you have not been, and every time you have been ready, we have not been."

"Maybe," Pickering suggested, "we can emerge from that position of the past to begin with some small things – that we can find a way to pull the curves of mutual interest together, rather than have them continue to bend apart."

Jasmin Ramsey is a contributor to Inter Press Service.

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