Isolating Iran?

The 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran this week will draw dignitaries and representatives from more than 100 countries — 35 heads of state, including Mohamed Morsi, the current chair of the movement and the first democratically elected president of Egypt, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. For the next three years, Iran will serve as the chair of the movement, which was formed in 1961 to counterbalance the superpowers. In early August, Iran hosted a high-level meeting that included Russia on the crisis in Syria. All this points to the abject failure of the U.S. policy in the last 30 years to “isolate” Iran.

Policies of restriction or containment through sanctions and economic mechanisms do not work. In a porous world, sanctions are largely ineffective. Sanctions didn’t change the behavior of Saddam Hussein or Moammar Kadafi (despite what some think, other factors forced Kadafi to disarm his nuclear program) or affect North Korea, and Cuba has survived in spite of comprehensive U.S. sanctions. Where a U.S. sanctions policy has been successful, it has been coupled with constructive or positive engagement: the ending of apartheid in South Africa and of communism in Eastern Europe, Arab-Israeli peace (through U.S. engagement of Jordan and Egypt), protection of intellectual property in China — all have come about because of influence through involvement.

Proponents of further tightening of the so-called crippling sanctions or the oxymoronic “smart sanctions” on Iran point to the significant drop in Iran’s oil exports, shortage of foreign currency and the economic hardship in Iran as evidence of the effectiveness of sanctions. However, the sole intended consequence of all these sanctions has been zero insofar as scaling back or curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.

The underlying rationale for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology is a need to achieve self-sufficiency in production of fuel for its planned nuclear power industry and a desire for prestige that goes with technological advancement. The fact that nuclear power capability might be weaponized acts also as deterrence against Iran’s adversaries. The Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, in which the West backed Saddam Hussein and his Arab allies, showed Tehran the need for strong deterrence if the country were to survive in a secure and stable environment. But for the United States, Iran’s nuclear “issue” is a political matter.

As Homi Jehangir Bhabha, father of India’s nuclear technology, said in 1965, “a way must be found so that a nation will gain as much by not going for nuclear weapons as it might by developing them.”

During the Truman administration, Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s policy of containment of China pushed Chairman Mao Tse-tung to greater extremes and arguably led to the Chinese invasion of southern Korea that produced the Korean War, ensnaring the United States. Likewise, his treatment of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and refusing to fund the construction of the Aswan Dam further radicalized the Egyptian leader, pushing him into the arms of the Soviet Union.

Likewise, imposing more sanctions on Iran would result in further radicalization, adding fuel to the fire of hard-liners and eventually marginalizing the democratic forces in Iran. Instead of sanctions, the West is better advised to support and promote the Iranian private sector, which is the engine of economic growth and social change.

When it comes to building relationships, the recipe for Iran should be the same one that the U.S. followed in overcoming its ideological angst with respect to the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. In the case of Iran, the U.S. could take a baby step by allowing the Iranians to purchase goods, know-how and other services that enhance the safety of Iran’s civil aviation. This confidence-building initiative, which is powered by science and engineering-enriched diplomacy, is a correct approach and promotes global aviation safety.

To begin the process, there must be a willingness on the part of the U.S. or Iran to admit that one day there could be a meaningful relationship between the two. Then we must consider the circumstances that can bring about the relationship — not conditions precedent to talks or the like but rather to imagine what the relationship itself would be. In that relationship, all other external issues, such as terrorism, regional concerns and weapons of mass destruction, could be discussed.

The U.S. needs to see Iran as part of the solution to its strategic challenges in the Middle East, which have little to do with Iran itself. For example, the Syrian quagmire, which is fueled by the Sunni governments, mostly dictatorial monarchies, is not of Iran’s making. But, first, Washington and Tehran must be able to communicate directly and reciprocally on matters of mutual interest. Resolving their differences can come later, much later.

As the gathering of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran demonstrates, Iran is isolated mostly in the minds of some U.S. policymakers and their cheerleading pundits. It is U.S. interests that suffer as a consequence. By not reckoning with Iran as a major player in the Middle East, the U.S. deprives the American private sector of a lucrative market, indirectly keeps Israel’s security in a state of limbo and deepens the stagnation in the Arab-Israeli peace process. A fresh and bold approach to U.S.-Iran relations is not only desirable but imperative for the United States’ national interests in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

Najmedin Meshkati is a professor of engineering at USC and was a senior science and engineering advisor in the Office of Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State (2009-2010). Guive Mirfendereski is an international lawyer and lecturer in legal studies at Brandeis University; he is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries and Other Stories.

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