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Iran: Can Diplomacy Prevail Over Military Action?

March 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama said Tuesday he still hopes Iran's nuclear threat could be resolved diplomatically. Jeffrey Brown explores potential diplomatic solutions to growing tensions between the U.S., Iran and Israel with the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney and The Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Mehdi Khalaji.


In recent weeks, we have discussed the potential for military action against Iran. Now we examine the latest diplomatic movement.

And for that, we’re joined by Suzanne Maloney. She is a former U.S. State Department official who dealt with Iran issues. She’s now at the Brookings Institution. And Mehdi Khalaji spent nearly 15 years studying theology and law in the Iranian holy city of Qom and later became a journalist in Tehran. He’s now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Welcome to both of you.

Suzanne Maloney, first, an agreement, yes, but to — about what exactly, to talk about what exactly?

SUZANNE MALONEY, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution: Well, I think it’s an achievement that we actually are returning to the table.

We’ve had quite a bit of difficulty getting the Iranians to commit to even speaking about the nuclear program. And we have seen this week I think two hopeful signs, first, that the communication from the Iranian security of the Supreme National Security Committee has actually indicated that he’s prepared to talk about nuclear issues. That’s not always been the case.

Secondly, this newfound willingness, at least on paper, to allow inspections of the Parchin military site, which is a major source of concerns about the military dimensions of the program. So it’s a useful starting point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, as we already heard in that tape, we have been down this road before, right?

MEHDI KHALAJI, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about what led up to this and past experiences.

MEHDI KHALAJI: The sanctions which are in place now are quite unprecedented. And they really target, not only Revolutionary Guard and some factories and individuals associated with, but the whole economy, namely, the banking system and also oil trade.

It really bites the regime. And one of the main concerns of the Islamic Republic is to see that the political crisis becomes one of the side effects of the sanctions. That would be very hard for the regime to manage it, because they had a difficult time in 2009 in dealing with post-election crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when you think about where we’re at right now and the potential for these negotiations, one of the starting points is that — for you — is that the sanctions are really hitting and hurting.

MEHDI KHALAJI: Yes, that’s right.

You know that last month the country’s currency was decreased to about half. So people are panicked. In about 10 days, we have Nowruz, the Iranian-Persian New Year. People need to shop, and prices are quite high. Inflation rate is increasing. The number of unemployment is just getting bigger and bigger.

So, the country is really in trouble. And the number of factories that are shut down is just increasing more and more.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Suzanne Maloney, what is it for — if you look at both sides — let’s start with the U.S. and European Union here and other global powers — what must they get out of these talks? What is the sort of bottom line?

SUZANNE MALONEY: I think, for the West, there’s an interest in getting any sort of successful product of negotiations.

That is to say, there’s no expectation at this time that we’re going resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, which has been ongoing now. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: No expectation? Yes.

SUZANNE MALONEY: . . . for at least a decade, in the course of the next few months.

But there is at least I think some prospect that we will be able to wrest some tactical concessions from the Iranians, the sorts of concessions that they have made in the past.


SUZANNE MALONEY: Right now, I think the focus would be on their enrichment at nearly 20 percent levels, which is a greater source of concern, because it’s closer to the level that would be needed for nuclear fuel for a weapon.

And the Iranians have in the past indicated that they might be willing to give a little bit on that. That’s only a two-year project at this stage. And so, in effect, if we were able to persuade them to forestall that enrichment at higher levels, in exchange for potentially medical isotopes for their research reactor, it would be a revised and frankly less valuable version of the 2009 deal that was put on the table the Iranians initially agreed to and later walked away from.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that might be satisfactory, is your sense, might be, at least to some leaders in the West?

SUZANNE MALONEY: I think it would be a starting point. It would be evidence that there was some utility to negotiations, that the Iranians were not simply stonewalling, if they were able to walk away from an early set of negotiations with a kind of confidence-building measure that suggested that the Iranians were in fact at a different point in their mentality, largely because of the economic pressures, as well as the possibility of military conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of stonewalling — and again we heard that from the French foreign minister and others — is this potential that they’re just playing for time. That’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s line as well.

MEHDI KHALAJI: That’s right.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the supreme leader of the country and commander in chief of armed forces and also the person who is in charge of the nuclear program, has a long record of uncompromising attitude. Ayatollah Khamenei thinks that the nuclear program is related to the destiny of Islamic Republic and any compromise on nuclear program would lead to a chain of compromises which ultimately target the existence of Islamic Republic.

He believes that the West and Israel would never recognize the Islamic Republic, and if we give up now, we have to give up the whole regime.

So, he is not willing to make any sort of compromise. I believe that the only chance for a compromise would be when Revolutionary Guard, influential people and commanders who run the country’s economy, they force him to actually to make compromise.

And one of the purpose of the sanctions, which hits Revolutionary Guard’s companies and individuals, is to provoke them against the supreme leader and deepen this gap between him and this organization.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another potential pitfall, I would assume here, again on the West side is that there are divisions among Russia, China, E.U., U.S., right, which Iran could play to.

SUZANNE MALONEY: There are divisions.

And we’ve seen that even in the past days’ diplomacy, the sort of infighting over even the statement that would be put out with the announcement of these new talks. There are divisions simply because the Russians and the Chinese are not as prone to welcome sanctions. They don’t believe sanctions have a constructive impact on Iran’s security policy.

And of course there are other issues in the neighborhood that are causing frictions among these allies, in particular Syria. And so I think that there is probably plenty of reason for skepticism that these upcoming talks are going to produce a process which is really going to lead us to the end of the rainbow with respect to the Iranian nuclear program.

But, that said, it’s important now to invest a little bit in diplomacy to see what we can get from that process.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the stakes would be presumably again even higher, because, if the negotiations were to fail, then you have perhaps even those who are wavering in their sense in calling for military action might see that as even more a potential need.

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, I think this is the difficulty with the way that we know the Iranians approach negotiations.

They see this as a means of maneuvering and as a means of preserving their nuclear program. They’ve described their past negotiations in just those terms. And so the expectation is that even their tactical concessions are not likely to bring us to this process of trust-building that the Obama administration initially began its program of engaging Iran with the intention of accomplishing.

I think both sides now have relatively modest expectations. They’re looking to get through the next few months and to survive this crisis, but, ultimately, I think we’ll see this estrangement continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: A brief last word on that? What do you. . .

MEHDI KHALAJI: I think the main purpose of this negotiation is confidence-building, because both parties really mistrust each other.

And I think the expectation would be very low. And they are open, both parties, to a variety of suggestions. I think that would be a significant chance for Iran to actually postpone the possibility of war. Otherwise, I think just Iran would face more sanctions and the economy of the country and also the politics of Islamic Republic will be in real trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mehdi Khalaji and Suzanne Maloney, thank you both very much.