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How Obama should talk to Iran

By Trita Parsi,

Just 13 minutes into his presidency, Barack Obama indirectly reached out to Iran in his inaugural address, offering America’s hand of friendship if Tehran would unclench its fist. After eight years of the George W. Bush administration’s ideological contempt for diplomacy with America’s foes, it was a bold move born out of necessity, not desire.

But Obama’s diplomacy has fallen short. After two rounds of talks in October 2009, in which Tehran refused to accept a U.S. confidence-building measure to exchange its low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a medical research reactor, the sanctions track was activated. Ever since, Iran and the United States have been on a confrontational path. Washington has imposed unprecedented economic sanctions and isolated Iran politically. In turn, the Iranians have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, amassed more low-enriched uranium and begun enrichment at a facility deep underground.

Rather than resolving the nuclear issue, Iran and the United States are inching closer to a military confrontation. But war is not inevitable. Diplomacy, which the Obama administration prematurely abandoned, can still succeed.

“Our Iran diplomacy was a gamble on a single roll of the dice,” a senior State Department official told me in 2010. In short, it either had to work right away or not at all. In fact, six months after the U.S. talks collapsed, Turkey and Brazil secured a version of the fuel swap that Obama had sought.

Fearing that the failure of the U.S. talks would eventually lead to war, Turkey and Brazil stepped in to persuade Iran to accept the American benchmarks for the fuel swap. To the surprise of many in the White House, Turkey and Brazil succeeded.

But by then, it was too late. The Obama administration was already on the path to sanctions. Brazil and Turkey felt snubbed, temporarily chilling their relations with Washington. (Brazil has since turned its focus to other issues, but Turkey is still involved as an occasional mediator with Iran.)

Instead of continuing toward a war the U.S. military doesn’t want, we should double down on diplomacy, in part by emulating Turkey and Brazil’s efforts. In light of news reports this past week that Iran would be open to talks later this month with the P5+1 negotiating group — China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the United States — here are five ways we can learn from Turkey and Brazil’s interactions with Iran.

Talk to everyone — and talk a lot

A paralyzing question often asked in Washington is: Who do we talk to in Iran? The futile search for a sole authoritative Iranian partner often causes diplomacy to be rejected before it even begins. Turkey and Brazil did not fall into this trap. Instead, they recognized that there are many power centers in Iran — including the supreme leader’s office, the parliament, the president’s circle of advisers, the National Security Council and influential clergymen — all of which need to be included in the process.

Just as no country expects to sign a significant deal with the United States without addressing the concerns of the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress, no major decision is likely to be made in Iran unless a range of decision-makers is brought into the discussion. Brazil and Turkey built confidence with the relevant Iranian players and won their support for mediation.

“There is one country that resembles the Iranian power structure,” a prominent journalist close to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told me. “It’s the United States of America. [To get a deal], talking to the president is not enough. You have to talk to everyone.”

Brazil and Turkey did not put time constraints or other limits on their diplomacy, as the United States did by adopting an unrealistic deadline for talks to produce results and by making the fuel swap a condition for expanding diplomacy into other areas.

Between the collapse of the U.S. talks in October 2009 and Brazil and Turkey’s successful mediation in May 2010, Brazil and Turkey spent more time talking to the Iranians than did the entire P5+1 negotiating group. Brazil’s and Turkey’s foreign ministers shuttled in and out of Iran for months before the formal negotiations, building trust and political space for their mediation.

Respect and tone matter

After three decades of mutual demonization, the United States and Iran have been trying to coerce one another into submission rather than negotiating toward compromise. When addressing each other, Washington and Tehran tend to use the vocabulary of conflict and war. The Bush administration’s inclusion of Iran in an “axis of evil”effectively terminated a very useful collaboration between the United States and Iran against the Taliban in 2002. Respect for the other side is rarely expressed, out of fear that it would be interpreted as weakness — especially in an election year.

Turkey and Brazil adopted a different approach. “Iran listens because we respect them,” a senior Turkish diplomat involved in the 2010 talks told me. “When you put intimidation and coercion ahead of respect, it falls apart.”

Don’t limit the agenda

Reducing 30 years of wide-ranging U.S.-Iran tensions to negotiations focused on one variable — the development of nuclear weapons — is not a formula for success. A larger agenda that includes other issues, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, regional security, and human rights, would provide greater maneuverability. We could overcome a stalemate in one track through headway in another.

For example, Brazil raised the issue of human rights, a sensitive topic for Tehran. Defense Minister Celso Amorim, who was Brazil’s foreign minister during the negotiations, told me how, behind the scenes, he used his many trips to Iran to secure the release of a French student accused of espionage. For future talks to be successful, the agenda should be expanded — and even sensitive issues such as human rights should be included. Not only would this help strengthen relations with the Iranian people, it would also enable the United States to address the plight of Americans imprisoned in Iran.

Put nuclear inspections and verification at the center

Negotiating whether Iran can enrich uranium has been a losing proposition from the outset. There is a greater chance for success if the focus is shifted toward how enrichment can be inspected, verified, limited and controlled. This would require a clear acceptance of enrichment in Iran — a step the West has refused. In Amorim’s assessment, his success in getting Iran to agree to the fuel swap was largely because the deal tacitly accepted enrichment on Iranian soil.

“Iran would never agree to anything, any kind of arrangement that would in theory or in practice deprive them of the right to enrich uranium,” Amorim told me in 2010.

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Iran’s relationships with every one of the P5+1 countries range from bad to worse. Not a single member of that negotiating group trusts Iran — and vice versa. Resolving the nuclear dispute through a mechanism nearly devoid of trust is a formidable task. Although the Security Council negotiation track cannot be sidestepped, it can be complemented by relying on states that — because of their cordial relations with both the permanent members and Iran — can bring trust to the diplomacy. Beyond Turkey and Brazil, nations such as Norway, Sweden, South Africa, Oman and Qatar can help overcome the current impasse, primarily by bridging the trust gap between Iran and the P5+1. Enlisting their assistance is particularly critical in the next 15 months because there’s a heightened risk that tensions could escalate during the U.S. and Iranian election seasons.

Moreover, trust is an outcome, not a precondition. Rather than putting their trust in Iran, Brazil and Turkey put their trust in the enforcement mechanisms of the fuel-swap agreement, realizing that the talks leading to a deal would help build a strong rapport.

“It’s not about trusting anyone,” an adviser to then-Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told me in 2010. “It’s about generating the mechanics under which people can prove that they deserve that trust.”

Sustained, persistent diplomacy remains untested between the United States and Iran. It is superior to war and sanctions for the simple fact that, if successful, it not only could prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but the reduced tensions would lessen Iran’s demand for nuclear deterrence. War and sanctions may limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but at the expense of increasing Iran’s desire to have those capabilities. At some point, the desire will overcome these obstacles.

One simply cannot threaten or sanction a country into a sense of security.

tparsi@niacouncil.org

Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, is the author of the book “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran.”

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