Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in the news again last week calling for the destruction of Israel, even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with leaders throughout the Middle East. As Iran continues to pursue nuclear capabilities and its aggression toward the West shows no sign of slacking, many expect the Obama administration to intensify its diplomacy with Iran in the coming months.
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations met on March 5th to assess the threat that Iran presents, and discuss options for entering into negotiations. The committee asked Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and General Brent Scowcroft of The Scowcroft group to be witnesses in the discussion, and lend their expertise to the senators as they prepare to help develop a more comprehensive U.S.-Iran policy.
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) opened the discussion by referring to Iran’s nuclear program, which it clearly intends to develop, despite public claims that it does not seek nuclear weapons. Senator Kerry warned, “We know that although Iran may have some distance to go before it can test or deploy a nuclear weapon, it is daily producing more reactor grade uranium that can be further enriched, to provide the guts of a nuclear weapon.”
Senator Kerry also emphasized the need to confront Iran on its nuclear program firmly, and with a broad international coalition. He said, “For diplomacy to succeed we need the full backing of our allies in Europe, as well as Russia, China and other countries that trade extensively with Iran.”
Dr. Brzezinski agreed that we must meet with our allies in private and decide exactly how to approach Iran. It is a situation that must be reasoned with “patience, prudence, and a deliberate effort to shape atmospherics,” in order to avoid two potential disasters—a nuclear bomb in Iran or war with Iran. Both must be avoided at all costs.
He emphasized one resource the U.S. should use in order to pressure Iran is world opinion. This option springs from the difference between the North Korean approach to negotiations, and the Iranian approach. “The North Koreans have said publicly, ‘We want nuclear weapons, we are seeking nuclear weapons, indeed…we have achieved nuclear weapons.’ The Iranians are saying to us, ‘We do not want nuclear weapons, we do not seek nuclear weapons, and our religion forbids us to have nuclear weapons.’”
The U.S. should gladly accept these claims, Brzezinski explains, but then require proof and reassurance of the peaceful aims. “That seems to me to be the goal negotiations should be designed to pursue. And therefore we should be very careful to avoid any approach which, in advance, impedes the process of negotiations, inflames the context in which they’ll be pursued, and makes it easier for people like Ahmadinejad to gloat against the United States and undercut the public support for the negotiating process in the United States and in the international community.”
General Scowcroft also emphasized the need for a dispassionate, emotionless negotiating process that involves the international community. “When our policies and actions appeal to Iranian nationalism, at which Ahmadinejad is a master, we play into his hands.” he said. “We help him use anti-Americanism to bring the country together.” We need to stop talking about aggressive policies like invasion and regime change—this only provides ammunition for their politicians and makes an uphill battle steeper.
The witnesses shared the conclusion that if U.S. policymakers wish to gain real ground with the Iranians, they must tread softly, while having well-thought out goals and the grit to pursue them. We must also consider not only the threat that we perceive from the Iranians, but the threat that they feel from the U.S. We have considerably more advanced means of employing force in negotiations, and have recently invaded two of Iran’s neighbors.
Senator Kerry concluded on a hopeful note, insisting that “there are much better prospects than the current climate would seem to tell us.” He hoped that the leaders of Iran were “listening carefully,” because the leaders of the United States are prepared to pursue peaceful negotiations, and break from a recent history of antagonism.