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Report: Take More Risk to Find Common Ground with Iran

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Whoever moves into the White House next January should be willing to “take more risk to find some common ground with Iran,” according to a new report released by the non-partisan Atlantic Council on October 19.

Calling for Obama’s successor to pursue “more proactive engagement,” the report, “A New Strategy for US-Iran Relations in Transition,” argues that “demands for a more stable regional order compel a fresh look at what can be done to work with Iran in a more constructive way.” Last year’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and the opening of channels that made the JCPOA and its thus-far successful implementation possible—has set the stage for such a policy, the report emphasizes.

“What path Iran’s leaders and society choose is their responsibility, but it is time for the United States to prepare for an eventual normalization of relations,” states the author, Ellen Laipson, who served as president and CEO of the influential Stimson Center from 2002 until last November and as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council under former President Bill Clinton, among other positions.

“As was the case with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or in the early stages of US-China engagement, one can frame a strategy that both pursues a longer-term change in the historic relationship and provides meaningful security measures to reassure allies and manage regional tensions during a period of transition,” according to the report, which called for US national-security officials to “shed some old thinking about the near permanence of US-Iran enmity.”

The report marks a stark contrast to the recommendations on Iran policy made last May by a task force put together by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). As I wrote at the time, the CNAS report could have been written as a joint paper submitted by Saudi Arabia and Israel with the overriding goal of “defeating Iran’s determined effort to dominate the Greater Middle East.” Because some members of the task force—notably Michele Flournoy, Julianne Smith, and James Steinberg—are likely to be get top positions in a Clinton administration, the CNAS report’s undisguised hostility toward Tehran was particularly noteworthy.

Although Laipson, who also served on Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board from 2009 to 2013, argues that containment is likely to “remain a central component” of the new strategy for the first few years of the next decade, the policy must also be balanced by “proactive engagement.”

The goals of the new strategy are clear: …reduce prospects for a military confrontation with Iran; improve the regional security environment by working with trusted partners and with Iran; and, eventually, enable Iran and the United States to build cooperation in diverse areas of shared concern.

These range from regional crises, “from Syria and Afghanistan to the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to “transnational challenges,” including climate change, water, food insecurity, public health, and drug-use preventions, among other areas.

Laipson does not foresee any dramatic or radical changes in Iran’s governing structure or policies over the next few years. The most likely outcome of current trends in Iran “is a gradual increase in the size and impact of the reformist camp and a durable power center around the office of the Supreme Leader.”

Washington should also be realistic about what parts of Iran’s policy it can and cannot influence: “US policy pronouncements have to demonstrate a deeper understanding of Iran’s own legitimate interests and perceived national security requirements, and must not set the bar for change too high.” It “should have no illusions that Iran would be motivated to foreswear its historical political and religious networks in the region.”

Nonetheless, Washington must recognize that Iran’s agreement to the JCPOA marks a “significant shift in [its] behavior and thinking,” a shift that should provoke the new US president to ask the intelligence community to produce a new assessment of Iran’s regional and global objectives, as well as its internal balance of power, that would then serve as the basis for strategic planning. Once a policy is adopted, the president should articulate it publicly. “An engaged and persistent president will be essential to promoting the strategy as a priority, setting and enforcing the tone for how to engage with Iranian counterparts, and actively setting direction for the bureaucracy,” according to Laipson, who stressed that the State Department should play the lead role in explaining the strategy to U.S. regional allies.

“The new strategy will require careful attention to the US-Arab and US-Israel security relationships, but will need to accept, on occasion, that US strategic interests do not align perfectly with those of US regional partners. Those countries see a long-term threat from Iran, but may have unrealistic expectations about the capacity of the United States, or any outside power, to change the geopolitical realities of the situation,” Laipson argues.

Although the Pentagon “will continue to play a key role in containing and deterring Iran from any military or paramilitary activity deemed hostile to US interests,” it should also look for opportunities “to open channels to their Iranian counterparts as confidence-building measures, and even conflict-prevention measures.” Joint exercises with the Gulf Cooperation Council and with Israel should continue, but Washington should provide prior notice to Iran “with a goal of eventually allowing [it] observer status.” If successful, dialogue between defense officials from both countries would be desirable, although such meetings should be led by civilian officials, in part to ensure that messaging is consistent.

Indeed, “greater management of the strategic messaging to Iran is needed” with the State Department and White House “indisputably in charge.”

The report includes a selection of post-JCPOA quotations by top US and Iranian leaders that illustrate the disconnects within the two countries’ governments on how the agreement is to be interpreted. Although Obama and Kerry emphasized the possibilities of a new relationship with Tehran, Pentagon chief Ashton Carter was considerably more hawkish—a mirror image of the difference in statements made at the same time by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

The discussion on Laipson’s report held by the Atlantic Council is now online

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