(David Ignatius also has a column on the event: "The simulated world of December 2010 looks ragged and dangerous. If the real players truly mean to contain Iran and stop it from getting the bomb, they need to avoid the snares that were so evident in the Harvard game."):
Can the United States forge a mutually constructive relationship with Iran? Can a global superpower find a way to persuade a recalcitrant and paranoid regional power to enter the community of nations as a responsible participant?
Iran: US State Department Pushes for “Proper” Sanctions in 2010
The Latest on Iran (16 December): What’s Next?
For 30 years, both America and Iran have answered those questions with a resounding no. The United States has historically taken a coercive approach, which has only driven Iran further into petulant isolation.
The Obama presidency promised a different strategy.
Rather than indulging in extravagant Axis-of-Evil invective, which even the outgoing Bush administration had come to regard as counter-productive, the United States would cool the rhetoric and extend a hand. That policy was only four months old in June, when Iran descended into its most excruciating domestic crisis since the civil war in the early 1980s. The resulting loss of legitimacy by the ruling elites and their utter preoccupation with their own survival meant that foreign policy decisions – always difficult at best – were now subject to a new set of internal dynamics and uncertainties.
Despite these new complications, Iran’s national security leadership accepted and even promoted an agreement with the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) for a swap of nuclear material. Iran would relinquish a sizable proportion of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), which would be further enriched by Russia and then fashioned into fuel cells by France to supply the Tehran Research Reactor. Both sides regarded this as a win-win agreement and an important step towards further negotiations.
But the proposal met a chorus of disapproval from Iran’s parliament and even the “Green” opposition, who argued that Iran should not give up a “national asset” – the uranium – without absolute assurances that the P5+1 would fulfill their end of the bargain. Iran’s leaders were forced to propose an alternative arrangement: that the swap take place inside Iran.
At that point, the United States and its partners could have responded with a counter-offer that would, for example, sequester the Iranian LEU under strict safeguards until the replacement fuel cells were available, thus accomplishing most, if not all, of their original objectives. Instead, they ended all negotiations and introduced a sharply critical resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency board.
Iran predictably responded by declaring it would reduce its cooperation with the IAEA and, in a fit of blustery indignation, announcing a new plan to build 10 additional enrichment sites – a hollow threat since Iran lacked both the centrifuges and the necessary raw uranium fuel to carry it out.
Iran withdrew into its cocoon of haughty and pained victimization. The United States and its allies made a similar retreat to a posture of righteous indignation, the better to fashion “crippling” sanctions designed to force Iran to change its policies.
This sequence of events suggested that the future of interactions between the United States and Iran under Barack Obama might not look so different from his predecessors. A recent experience convinces me that such a conclusion may not be entirely fanciful.
Last week I participated in a simulation game at Harvard University’s Belfer Center focused on US-Iran relations. About half a dozen countries or entities (including the EU and the GCC) were represented by teams of participants, many of whom had long years of experience in regional politics. For my sins, I was made the head of the Iran team.
The goal of the American team was to assemble a consensus for new sanctions against Iran. The Iran team, on the other hand, felt confident that the US and its allies could not put together a package that would hurt us in any serious way, and that was indeed the case. By the end of the game, the Americans had driven away all their ostensible allies, and wasted immense time and effort, while Iran was better off than it had been at the beginning.
This was only a simulation, of course. But the moves of the US team were quite similar to the strategy actually employed by the United States over the course of the past three administrations. The pursuit of sanctions in this game, as in the real world, became an end in itself, with little impact on Iran or its ability to continue enrichment. The United States can (and in fact already has) put together a reasonable set of sanctions. These efforts may please the Israelis, the GCC states and other allies as a show of determination. But will they stop Iran?
Those of us on the Iran team scarcely paid any attention to all this massive US policy exertion. Admittedly, we felt lonely at times. But we never believed that our core objectives (freedom to proceed with our nuclear plans and our growing appetite for domestic political repression) were at risk – nor was the survival of our rather peculiar regime, which was of course our most immediate concern.
The offers made by the Iran team were modest in the extreme, yet they formed the basis of the final outcome. No other country had the courage or imagination to remind us of the earlier proposals and suggestions we had made, which were still on the table, nor did they try to sit us down and push us on our plans, or give us a juicy incentive that might have forced us to make real decisions. Also, no one attempted to broaden the discussion to other areas where the United States and Iran share some common interests and might have found common ground.
It was probably realistic that no one challenged Iran’s right to enrich. That has reluctantly been accepted as a fait accompli. But there was no effort to test Iran on safeguards, inspections or other arrangements that might provide reliable intelligence on Iranian activities; neither did any player propose restrictions on specific key elements of the Iranian nuclear program, which would lengthen the time required to break out into production of a nuclear device.
By the end of the game, Russia and China had initiated their own secret accommodation with Iran. That was an interesting development, but one that was by no means inevitable. It happened because of the single-minded pressure of the US team, who demanded support for a sanctions regime that was fundamentally contrary to Russian and Chinese interests.
Relations between the United States and Iran have always been more about domestic politics than foreign policy. That has never been truer than it is today.
For years, the United States attempted to isolate and contain Iran, without much success. Now Iran is isolating itself. A self-imposed “iron curtain” is descending around the country. Communications are subject to surveillance and punishment. Travel increasingly tends to be one way, as individuals decide to leave the country to “cool off” in the face of constant repression or simply to find decent jobs. “Commissars” are being placed in schools and universities to insure that teaching is in accordance with approved dogma according to the Revolutionary Guard. The basij, a popular paramilitary force, is increasingly being used for street enforcement, in place of the less-ideological police.
In the words of Charles Issawi, “Revolutions revolve – 360 degrees.” The leaders of the Iranian revolution are seemingly not content with merely imitating the tyrant that they so proudly overthrew 30 years ago. Instead they have gone even further, and now emulate the crude dictatorship of Saddam Hussein that is an insult to sophisticated Iranian culture. Iran is taking its place among those governments that are incompetent in all things except the repression of their own people.
The slow motion coup that is underway in Iran, with the Revolutionary Guard inserting itself into the very fabric of the state and economy, greatly complicates but does not prevent negotiation of important issues, including nuclear enrichment and human rights. Such an effort, however, requires patience and perseverance – qualities that come hard to American policy makers. Yet the United States negotiated a nuclear arms pact with the Soviet Union while also negotiating the Helsinki Accords, which gave birth to the modern human rights movement and empowered opponents of Soviet rule.
Is the United States really going to proceed with Iran on the basis of a sanctions policy that has consistently failed? One hopes that the Obama administration can demonstrate more imagination and agility than its Harvard namesakes.