by Jasmin Ramsey
via IPS News
The U.S. should not only focus on the short-term goal of “suspending or delaying” Iran’s alleged quest for a nuclear weapons capability, but also on “curtailing Iran’s other worrisome activities in the region while encouraging – or at least, not derailing – a better relationship with the citizens of the pivotal state,” according to a report released Thursday by the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
“It may not be possible to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to increase people-to-people ties,” Barbara Slavin, an Iran specialist and Council senior fellow, told IPS.
“The fact that academic exchanges are actually rising – and that nearly 7,000 Iranian students came to the U.S. last year – suggests that Iranians and their government value these connections and do not want to lose them despite the regime’s fears of a ‘velvet revolution’,” she said.
The U.S. should engage Iranians through a variety of means including media outreach, cultural exchanges, internet freedom promotion and reducing the “negative effects” sanctions have on Iran’s citizenry, it says.
This can be done by “designating a small number of U.S. and private Iranian financial institutions as channels for payment for humanitarian, educational, and public diplomacy-related transactions carefully licensed by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control”, according to the report.
While “sanctions have had a severe impact on the Iranian economy,” they “have not yet had the intended political effect of bolstering moderates or shifting the positions of the regime’s leaders,” notes the report, echoing an observation that’s been heard throughout Washington lately.
Any lessening of the sanctions regime, however, ties in to a “dilemma” noted by the report: while eased economic sanctions “would help Iran’s government resume economic growth”, a rapprochement would “allow in more Westerners and could contribute to a potential ‘velvet revolution’ against the theocratic system led by the middle class.”
At the same time, the U.S. does not want to relieve economic pressure on the government while it continues its controversial nuclear activities, the report adds.
“Thus, while the long-term strategic objectives of the United States require it to try harder to build bridges to the Iranian people to prepare the ground for the eventual resumption of normal diplomatic ties, a normalization of relations is unlikely until the nuclear issue is resolved”, the report said.
Talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) during the last two months did not result in a breakthrough, but the Iranians agreed to consider suspending their 20-percent enrichment of uranium for a six-month period and to convert their existing 20-percent stockpile to uranium oxide for medical use in exchange for some relaxation of Western economic sanctions as a confidence-building agreement, according to Al-Monitor.
The next round of negotiations will take place Apr. 5-6 in Kazakhstan.
“There are a number of ways that Almaty II can play out, but we certainly hope that what the Iranians have characterised as positive will produce concrete results,” said a senior administration official in a Wednesday call with reporters.
“The bottom line is that we need to have them enter into a negotiation on the substance of the proposal that we have put in front of them…we’ll have to evaluate their response and then decide on what is the best way forward,” the official said.
“The Obama administration should lay out a step-by-step reciprocal and proportionate plan that ends with graduated relief of sanctions on oil, and eventually on the Iranian Central Bank, in return for verifiable curbs on Iranian uranium enrichment and stocks of enriched uranium, and assurances that Iran does not have undeclared nuclear materials and facilities,” recommends the Council’s report.
The report also recommends diminishing Iran’s ability to hurt U.S. interests in the region through means that include “efforts to shape and effectively support a coherent Syrian opposition that can provide a viable alternative to the Assad regime as well as reviving Arab-Israeli peace talks and shoring up the U.S. relationship with Egypt, Turkey and the GCC states.”
Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary-general who was Iran’s chief European interlocutor from 2003 to 2009, stated this week that Syria was so important to Iran that he did not think it possible to reach a nuclear agreement without also addressing the conflict there.
“Remember that [on] Syria, China and Russia are not in the same place [as] the Americans and the Europeans, and that is an important issue…[For] Iran, Syria has an important relationship. If on that we are not together, it will be more difficult to solve [the problem],” he said.
“Iran understands well that the U.S. wants a political solution in Syria and not a continuation of bloodshed and chaos. Otherwise, the Obama administration would have intervened more forcefully before now,” Slavin told IPS.
“I personally think the U.S. should engage Iran on Syria because both the U.S. and Iran want to prevent Assad from being replaced by a fundamentalist Sunni regime. But I also think that, given what has happened in Syria over the past two years, the U.S. should be more proactive as that is the only thing that will convince Assad to step down,” she said.
While a majority of the Council’s Iran Task Force “supports retaining the option of military strikes as a last resort”, the report includes a list of the “ramifications of a premature military strike”.
The potentially “dire second- and third-order effects” include Iranian retaliation against Israel with “thousands of missiles and rockets”, “international condemnation” that could result in the dissolving of the U.S.-built multilateral coalition against Iran, and Iranian withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would seriously diminish the international community’s access to Iran’s nuclear programme.
According to a report released Wednesday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Federation of American Scientists, Iran’s nuclear programme has so far cost Tehran more than 100 billion dollars in lost oil revenue and foreign investments alone.
Authors Ali Vaez and Karim Sadjadpour conclude that given the extent of Iran’s investment in and expertise on its nuclear programme, the only way to ensure it remains peaceful is through a “mutually agreeable diplomatic solution”.
Photo: Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor. Credit: Jim Lobe/IPS