New Report by U.S. Institute of Peace and Stimson Center: Recommendations to Rebalance U.S. Policy Toward Iran

November 15, 2010

Daniel Brumberg

       The chances of success in negotiations with Iran would increase if the international community extended a new offer of “strategic engagement,” while sustaining sanctions.

       The United States should take advantage of the leverage gained from the sanctions’ success to reinvigorate, broaden, and pursue diplomatic engagement. “Strategic engagement” might shift the balance in Tehran, persuading elites that the wiser course is to compromise on the nuclear issue and discuss security issues of mutual concern.

       The United States should make clear that the nuclear issue remains the most time-urgent, but it is also prepared to discuss additional issues of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan and the drug trade.

       Successful strategic engagement requires a willingness by the United States to make adjustments of comparable importance. This means recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes as long as it is conducted within tightly controlled and verifiable limits on level and volume. The package would also require Iran to clarify questions on its nuclear program and weapons-related activities and implement the Additional Protocol to its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, permitting inspections of undeclared facilities.

       If diplomacy and sanctions ultimately prove unsuccessful, some have suggested that the United States should seek to damage or destroy Iran nuclear infrastructure through air strikes.  The study group believes that military options would be counterproductive, as they could impose grave military, political, and economic costs on the United States and its allies, cement Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons, and likely end the chances for a democratic revival in Iran indefinitely.

       Israeli air strikes could possibly damage the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and set back the program for a year or two, but would have similar negative consequences for U.S. interests and should be discouraged. Threats of the use of force only reinforce those in Tehran who believe Iran needs nuclear weapons for its security and undermine those who argue for compromise with the international community.

       The United States has a clear interest in the security of Israel and Arab nations threatened by Iran. To offset these concerns, the United States should bolster the security capabilities of these nations, share intelligence, develop joint contingency plans, conduct joint exercises, and make available advanced military equipment.  The United States should also work to help the Arab states resolve their disputes diplomatically.

       Security cooperation not only improves these nations’ security, it also makes clear to Iranian leaders that their intransigence only deepens their isolation and the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

       The United States should not complete any new formal security commitments with the Gulf states at this point, as the debate that might accompany actions requiring congressional approval could be counter-productive.  The United States should also not imply any extended nuclear commitments, an action which might strengthen the position of hard-liners in the Iranian leadership.

Read the full report

Read Daniel Brumberg's chapter on Iran and democracy in “The Iran Primer” 

Daniel Brumberg is a senior advisor to the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at USIP, where he also served as acting director of USIP's Muslim World Initiative.