Past TAC contributor Trita Parsi has a new article in Foreign Policy making the argument for a “tactical pause” in engaging Iran. The core of Parsi’s argument is this:

Although diplomacy must remain the policy, the momentous upheaval in Iran has completely changed the political landscape. Opening talks with Iran’s current government at this decisive moment could backfire severely.

Having stated my support for engagement with Iran many times, and then having re-stated it after the June protests, I don’t agree with this. However, Parsi is someone whose arguments should be taken very seriously, so it’s important to explain why a “tactical pause” doesn’t make sense.

First, it is important to distinguish between different political landscapes. Even if the Iranian landscape has been “completely” changed, it does not follow that this changes the political calculus in the U.S. More to the point, one of the problems the protesters are facing is that the upheaval in Iran has not completely changed the Iranian political landscape. Indeed, the upheaval has not yet changed much of anything. Neither has the upheaval fundamentally changed Iranian or American interests, nor was it ever likely to do so. If engagement served the mutual interests of both states six months ago when the administration started gesturing towards it, it seems more likely than not that it still does.

Parsi places the political dispute at the center of his analysis, and he warns of what will happen if the protesters are denied any real remedy:

The likely result will be a radicalized population whose opposition to the government will be met with increased repression at home and more adventurism abroad.

I don’t know how many times I have seen this repression/adventurism pairing, but each time I see it I find it less and less persuasive. For many years, Iran has backed Hizbullah and Hamas under reformers, principalists and populists, in good times and bad, but this has been the extent of its “adventurism.” What shape would this increased adventurism take? Why should we expect that a regime beset by a radicalized, disaffected population would have either the resources or the time to devote to foreign adventurism? Iran has not waged a conventional war in over twenty years, and has instead fought proxy wars in which the cost in Iranian lives is basically nil and which therefore have limited political impact back home one way or the other, so what sort of adventurism would the regime engage in to distract attention from its failings?

Parsi says that opening talks with Iran could backfire severely, which is possible, and this is the more significant objectiong that needs to be overcome. How could it backfire? Parsi writes:

Delaying nuclear talks a few months won’t make a dramatic difference to Iran’s nuclear program. It could, however, determine which Iran America and the region will be dealing with for the next few decades — one in which democratic elements strengthen over time, or one where the will of the people grows increasingly irrelevant to Iran’s decision-makers.

Moreover, even nuclear talks would have a negligible impact on the election dispute, Iran currently is not in a position to negotiate. Some in Washington believe that the paralysis in Tehran has weakened Iran and made it more prone to compromise. But rather than delivering more, Iran’s government currently couldn’t deliver anything at all. The infighting has simply incapacitated Iranian decision makers.

If the talks would have a negligible impact on the political dispute, delaying them will have even less of an impact. Delaying talks is not going to determine “which Iran America and the region will be dealing with for the next few decades.” It will ensure that the diplomatic track stalls, the idea of engagement becomes a joke in Washington, and it will strengthen the hand of hawks who favor harsh sanctions and eventually want to see military action against Iran. If the dispute has weakened Iran, it won’t be more prone to compromise, but it is questionable whether the relevant parts of the government are as incapacitated as Parsi claims. On a more basic level, unless there is concerted movement towards opening talks with Iran U.S. policy will drift inexorably towards confrontation. I have this on good authority:

Unless a significant shift is made toward robust diplomacy—in which the two states negotiate an agreement for co-existence and a new order for the region—the clash is likely to be violent. In short, as geopolitical forces push the two toward a climax, there will either be comprehensive talks or a confrontation. Washington would be mistaken to think that containment and economic pressure can serve as a middle ground, evading both a costly military showdown and a potentially painful compromise with the mullahs.

These illusionary alternatives could potentially be pursued if the U.S.-Iranian clash was solely centered around the nuclear issue or Iranian involvement in Iraq. But in this larger strategic battle over pre-eminence in the Middle East, these policies are untenable, largely because time isn’t on America’s side. Sanctions can’t cripple Iran’s economy faster than Tehran marches toward nuclear capability, and perhaps more importantly, Washington can’t weaken Iran faster than it is being weakened in Iraq. As time passes, Iran’s position relative to the United States will likely strengthen. Indeed, Iranian leaders already refer to the U.S. as a “sunset” state and describe themselves as a “sunrise power.” Sooner or later, the containment policy will deteriorate into either talks or military action. More likely than not, the sanctions approach will increase the risk for a confrontation precisely because it renders a diplomatic opening less probable.

That was Trita Parsi writing in TAC two years ago. Parsi went on to say:

But whereas the simplest mistake—or even inaction—can spark a conflict, diplomacy can only be achieved if deliberately and persistently pursued.

Someone might object at this point that Parsi has even more credibility to call for a “tactical pause” because he has been such an outspoken advocate of pursuing a diplomatic course, but I think Parsi was right in 2007 that deliberate and persistent pursuit of diplomacy is the only way to ensure its success. A “tactical pause” makes sure that this pursuit is not persistent and may never be resumed once it is halted. Parsi’s objective remains the same, which is laudable, but it seems to me that he has erred in forgetting his own advice on how diplomacy with Iran can succeed.

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