Taking a break from the hawks

Editor’s note: This week, in place of our weekly roundup of hawkish commentary about Iran, we’re highlighting two articles regarding the U.S.’s Iran policy that shouldn’t be missed.

While discussing Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi’s recent article in the Boston Review (also a must-read), professor of international politics at Tufts University, Daniel Drezner, notes that the Obama administration’s sanctions policy may be taking on a life of its own:

It’s still possible for the sanctions to work. Those that are imposed multilaterally tend to take a longer time to have a policy effect. The target state will first try to break the multilateral coalition apart — and only after that policy fails will they consider concessions. Recent reportage suggest that Iran was not expecting this kind of multilateral pressure — and so it’s possible that Tehran will reconsider.

That said, the sanctions policy is pushing the United States into a policy cul-de-sac where the only way out is through regime change. In the abstract, that might sound great, but in reality, pushing for that option could be both messy and expensive.

Drezner’s piece somewhat echoes arguments made regularly by intelligence veteran Paul Pillar that are critical of Obama’s sanctions policy. (Pillar produces several articles a week about U.S. foreign policy in the National Interest where Drezner is a senior editor.)

Also published in Foreign Policy this week was John Limbert, a former hostage in Iran and State Department official who speaks fluent Persian. According to Iran expert Gary Sick, Limbert “probably knows more about Iran than any living American diplomat.” Last month Limbert and another former hostage, L. Bruce Laingen, provided 5 reasons why the U.S. “must avoid war with Iran” in the Christian Science Monitor. Now Limbert explains how the P5+1 could more effectively conduct negotiations with Tehran. An excerpt:

If these future talks — or any talks — deal only with Iran’s nuclear program, they will fail. For better or worse, the nuclear program has become highly symbolic for the Iranian side. Exchanges on the subject have become an exercise in “asymmetric negotiation,” in which each side is talking about a different subject to a different audience for a different purpose. The failure of such exchanges is certain, with both sides inevitably claiming afterward, “We made proposals, but they were not listening.”

For Americans, the concern is technical and legal matters such as the amounts of low- and high-enriched uranium, as well as the type and number of centrifuges in Iran’s possession. For Iranians, the negotiations are about their country’s place in the world community — its rights, national honor, and respect. As such, any Iranian negotiator who compromises will immediately face accusations of selling out his country’s dignity. Such was the case 60 years ago between Prime Minister Mohammad Mosadegh and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company when the British insisted on the sanctity of contracts and the Iranians sought to rectify a relationship out of balance for over a century. Today, the United States risks falling into the same trap of mutual incomprehension.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. talks with Iran needs to be about everthing from Lebanon to Palestine Israel Afghanistan …. time for real dialogue

  2. Yes, time for real dialogue…with US recognition of Iran’s right to be a sovereign, independent nation.

  3. If you’re saying that Iran should not relent until the Palestinians have a home, then no, that should not come into. (They should have one, but not linked to Iran nukes.) If you want to talk about Iran not meddling in those countries, then we need to talk more about getting out ourselves. Right now, too many want the US to stay in the fight for political and financial gain. But we at least need to concede that Iran has a right to generate electricity. The hardliners won’t even do that. To them, such a suggestion is like proposing gun control to the NRA. So the asymmetrical term is spot on.
    The problem with trying to establish some symmetry is that you have multiple voices speaking for too many countries. Someone in Iran can say that they will come to the table regarding nukes while another says that Israel should cease to exist. That sets off the hawks here. Then the President sends an emissary to discuss the situation while some people in congress issue a resolution that attempts to undermine the process. That should not be permitted or tolerated. It makes the USA appear schizophrenic. And they know the whole policy could be reversed, if not in 2012 then in 2016. Some hopefuls will go as far as to negotiate under the table to make an incumbent look bad. So who should the world believe? If I’m them, I don’t trust us anymore.

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