Last month in a barely noticed op-ed prominent voices Lee H. Hamilton, Gary Hart and Matthew Hodes strongly recommended focusing on “shared interests” and the “broader issues” that have marred U.S.-Iran relations since the Iranian revolution during renewed talks with Tehran. They reference missed windows of opportunity and expert analysis that we’ve highlighted here before from former ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers and the national security-focused Stimson Center before concluding that hawkish rhetoric should be resisted in favor of serious diplomacy:
As we approach the next round of negotiations, we must beware of extreme voices that will want to limit the conversation to an expansion of threats — a structure of confrontation or capitulation. Bellicose words can box us in just as they can box in the Iranians, making a military confrontation more likely. We would be better served by quiet, frank discussions about our respective interests and our potentially shared interests. We should never forget that during the Cold War, we faced an adversary that was equipped and prepared to destroy us and our allies. But while we never let our guard down, we nevertheless looked for opportunities to cooperate. Eventually, we found areas of mutual interest that helped build confidence in our ability to manage that complicated relationship. That policy worked for us during the Cold War; it should work for us with a regional actor today.
The authors’ bottom line is that any deal will require moving beyond the confines of the nuclear issue and working to realign Iran’s behavior and relationship with the international community without increasing the probability of military confrontation. Their words are all the more weighty because of their impressive credentials. Rep. Hamilton represented Indiana for 34 years and was the ranking Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He previously headed the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, co-chaired the Iraq Study Group Report and was the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Sen. Hart was the former frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and has been involved in national security consulting since leaving politics. For his part, international relations expert Matthew Hodes is the Executive Director of the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America where Hamilton and Hart are advisory board members. (Interestingly, an IPS News report revealed that Hamilton had been paid a “substantial amount” in 2011 to appear at panel for the U.S. terrorist-designated Mujahideen-e-khalq (MEK). Hamilton told journalist Barbara Slavin that he was not aware of the group’s background.)
Their article’s title, “Enlarging the Frame”, sums up what some analysts have been arguing needs to be done if the U.S. wants to pursue the diplomatic route with Iran. Write the Stimson Center’s Barry Blechman and R. Taj Moore:
We conclude that the US should utilize all potential conduits of communications to open negotiations with Iran—not only on the nuclear issue, but also on other issues upon which the two states might find common ground, such as the drug trade, Afghanistan, and maritime security. The November 2010 recommendations of the Iran Study Group, 40 experts jointly convened by the US Institute of Peace and the Stimson Center, remain valid. The US should rebalance its policy by reinvigorating efforts to engage Iran. Like the early days of the Cold War, the current enemy lacks a human face. To reduce the risks of military conflict and help reach a negotiated solution to the nuclear impasse, the US should make a renewed and genuine effort at engagement. This will be difficult given years of mutual aggression and scant communication, but proving that the US is committed to engagement could encourage key actors in Iran to conclude that it is time to enter into serious negotiations. In our view, US policies should be founded not only on our concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran, but also on a realistic understanding of the risks of military conflict with Iran. We need to put Iran’s nuclear threat in perspective and work more seriously to engage Iran on the full range of issues that divide us.