Negotiation – Not Strikes – Needed for Iran

By Lynn Kunkle and Lisa Schirch

WASHINGTON ~ As concerns persist that Israel or the United States could attack Iran, the realistic outcomes of such an event must be considered. An American military attack, rather than making the world more secure, could instead provide Iran with greater incentive to harm US interests and allies throughout the region. Principled negotiation, an interest-based approach to problem solving, could provide an alternative to coercive diplomacy to help resolve the current impasse.

A US strike would give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the pretext to move against Iranian reformers and civil society groups critical of the regime, silencing both dissident and pro-engagement voices. Iranian public opinion polls show that the Iranian people would rally around their president if attacked, leading some civil society leaders to warn that a foreign strike could set their reform efforts back decades.

Even “pinprick” surgical strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities could trigger a massive blowback against US interests and personnel in the region. The exposure of US interests to unpredictable and asymmetrical regional forces aligned to Iran would be nearly impossible to control. Some have estimated that the escalating rhetoric between the United States and Iran alone has pushed up the price of oil by US$50 per barrel.

Nor is a military strike in Iran likely to achieve the stated US goal of preventing the country’s nuclear enrichment program. As international criticism against US policy grows, chief UN nuclear inspector Mohammed al-Baradei recently asserted that an attacked Iran would have grounds to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Precipitous US action could therefore end up creating the very outcome it seeks to avoid.

Direct, open-ended, comprehensive, and bilateral talks with Iran still promise the best payoff for US interests in regional stability, secure oil resources and the promotion of democracy. Principled negotiation with Iran lays the groundwork for addressing the root causes of conflict between the two countries – from both perspectives.

For the United States, underlying sources of conflict with Iran are tied to fears over nuclear weapons capability and the country’s support for regional actors using violent means to achieve their aims. Regional stability and human rights issues are also concerns.

For Iran, the concerns include the need for secure and reliable energy development; international and regional recognition; respect for sovereign rights, regime security and regional stability and a perceived US bias toward Israel. Developing ways to acknowledge these interests would pave the way for more substantial diplomatic successes supporting US interests.

Principled negotiation with Iran could help the United States promote stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon by highlighting common ground on shared security issues. Iran has a long-term interest in stable, democratic neighbors. The scant evidence of Iranian support and training for Iraqi Shi’a groups suggests considerable Iranian restraint, given its porous 1,000-mile border and close religious kinship.

Iran, historically a pragmatic regional power, can play a productive role in countries in the region where the US has significant interests. Tehran has long opposed al Qaeda and the Taliban, supported Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan, taken the lead in poppy eradication, and even mediated among Iraqi Shi’a militias, helping to account for some of the successes of the recent US “surge.” Iran has also stated its willingness to negotiate its support for Hamas and Hizbullah.

The current strategy of only agreeing to talk with preconditions – on those issues Iran has stated its willingness to negotiate  prolongs the coercive posturing, leaving only sporadic, hesitant and easily derailed back-channel diplomacy to address issues of major regional significance. Senator Arlen Specter characterised this approach as “27 years of silence broken only by a few whispers,” which “has not worked and has left us in the dangerous predicament in which we find ourselves today.”

More investment is needed in public, back-channel, and citizen diplomatic engagement with Iran to build much-needed relationships, trust and cross-cultural understanding. Search for Common Ground, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Fellowship for Reconciliation are good examples of organizations that regularly exchange delegations between Iran and the United States.

It will take political courage to employ respectful, principled negotiation and diplomacy with Iran. But bold diplomatic initiatives and principled neutrality in sovereign affairs are proud traditions of American foreign policy.

If the United States resorts to military attacks on Iran, it certainly will not be able to claim this path as a “last resort” until it has first exhausted all possible diplomatic methods as a “first resort.”

Lisa Schirch and Lynn Kunkle work together at the 3D Security Initiative (, which promotes conflict prevention and peace building in US public and foreign policy.

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