WASHINGTON - A strategy of threats and "provocations" against Iran by the
incoming Barack Obama administration is likely to be counter-productive,
according to a report released in Washington on Friday by a group of 20 former
top US diplomats and regional experts.
The group, co-chaired by former United Nations ambassador Thomas Pickering and
James Dobbins, a top diplomatic troubleshooter under former president Bill
Clinton and President George W Bush, called instead for the new administration
to "open the door to direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations at
the senior diplomatic level", as well as unofficial contacts and exchanges.
"Paradoxical as it may seem amid all the heated media rhetoric,
sustained engagement is far more likely to strengthen United States national
security at this stage than either escalation to war or continued efforts to
threaten, intimidate or coerce Iran," according to the group. It also assailed
what it called eight "myths" propagated by neo-conservatives and other hawks
who have been pushing for greater pressure on Tehran to give in to Western
demands that it halt its nuclear program.
The "Joint Experts' Statement on Iran", a product of several months of internal
discussions, comes amid growing speculation that the Bush administration will
try to open a US Interests Section in Tehran during the two months left of its
tenure, to help lay the groundwork for the direct diplomatic engagement with
Iran which Obama promised during his victorious presidential campaign.
It also comes amid intensified jockeying among various factions and individuals
for key Middle East-related posts in the incoming administration. Ambassador
Dennis Ross, an Obama adviser who led peace negotiations between Israel and the
Palestinians during the Clinton years, is reportedly campaigning hard, with the
backing of the so-called "Israel Lobby", to be appointed as special envoy to
Iran and the wider region.
Ross, who, along with several other hawkish Obama advisers, was a charter
member of the United Against Nuclear Iran group, signed a recent report drafted
by two prominent neo-conservatives which argued that a deterrence would not
work against a nuclear-capable Iran because of the "Islamic Republic's
The report, sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, also argued that the new
president should make clear from his first day in office that he was prepared
to attack Iran if, in the face of escalating US and international pressure on
Tehran, it did not stop enriching uranium on its soil.
During his campaign, Obama stated on several occasions that Iran's acquisition
of nuclear weapons was "unacceptable", and that he would never take military
options off the table to prevent it. He has also sponsored legislation to
tighten economic sanctions against Iran and companies that do business with it.
At the same time, however, he has repeatedly stressed that he would engage
Tehran diplomatically without preconditions, even at the presidential level. At
least one adviser has suggested that Obama would offer "more carrots" - even as
it seeks strong sanctions - as part of a bargaining process than the Bush
administration has considered.
The Experts' Statement, however, argues that a punitive sanctions approach, let
alone a military attack, has been and is likely to continue to be
counter-productive. "US efforts to manage Iran through isolation, threats and
sanctions have been tried intermittently for more than two decades," according
to the group, which was also co-chaired by Columbia University Professor Gary
Sick, who dealt with Iran on the National Security Council staff of former
presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
"In that time they have not solved any major problem in US-Iran relations, and
have made most of them worse," it noted.
"Threats are not cowing Iran and the current regime in Tehran is not in
imminent peril," it went on. "The United States needs to stop the provocations
and take a long-term view with this regime, as it did with the Soviet Union and
The statement said retaining the threat of tougher sanctions if negotiations
over Iran's nuclear program failed was justifiable, but that the nuclear issue
should be raised as part of a broader US-Iran opening and that would include
"the credible prospect of security assurances and specific, tangible benefits
such as the easing of US sanctions in response to positive policy shifts in
The new administration should also appoint a special envoy both to deal
"comprehensively and constructively with Iran [as opposed to trading
accusations] and explore its willingness to work with the United States on
issues of common concern", particularly "in shaping the future of Iraq,
Afghanistan and the region". It noted that the US and Iran both supported the
government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and faced "common enemies" in
Afghanistan in the Taliban, al-Qaeda and drug traffickers.
Dobbins, Bush's special envoy for Afghanistan, has repeatedly praised Iran's
cooperation with US efforts in ousting the Taliban and al-Qaeda after 9/11 and
establishing the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The statement also stressed that a "US rapprochement with Iran, even an opening
of talks, could help in dealing with Arab-Israeli issues", given Tehran's
influence with the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The statement also addressed certain "myths" which it said had been used by US
hawks to discourage engagement, including the notion that the religious nature
of the regime rendered it undeterrable and that its leadership was implacably
opposed to the United States and determined to "wipe Israel off the map".
Citing specific examples of Tehran's foreign policy pragmatism over past two
decades, including its secret arms trade with Israel and active support for the
US in Afghanistan, the statement asserts that Iran's "recent history ... makes
[it] crystal clear that national self-preservation and regional influence - not
some quest for martyrdom in the service of Islam - is Iran's main foreign
It also cited declarations by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Iran would not
attack Israel unless it was attacked first and that "the day that relations
with America prove beneficial for the Iranian nation, I will be the first one
to approve of that".
While Iran's nuclear program gives "cause for deep concern", its specific
intent - as a source of national pride, a bargaining chip in broader
negotiations with the US, a deterrent against the US or Israel, or as a weapon
to support aggressive goals - remains murky, according to the statement.
"The only effective way to illuminate - and constructively alter - Iran's
intentions is through skillful and careful diplomacy. History shows that
sanctions alone are unlikely to succeed, and a strategy limited to escalating
threats or attacking Iran is likely to backfire - creating or hardening a
resolve to acquire nuclear weapons while inciting a backlash against us
throughout the region," it said.
Besides the three co-chairs, the group's members included Emile Nakhleh, a
retired senior Central Intelligence Agency officer who served as director of
the Political Islam Strategic Analysis program; Hadi Ghaemi, coordinator of the
International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; and academic specialists on
Iran, Shi'ite Islam and nuclear proliferation and technology.