Looks like Dennis Ross is about to become the U.S. envoy in charge of Iran. But I’m not sure that sending Ross directly into the fray is the best way to launch negotiations. Here are four other things that should happen first:
1. The Obama Administration should send a U.S. Ambassador back to Syria. Pulling Margaret Scobie from Damascus was one of the stupidest diplomatic moves George W. Bush did as President, and should be rectified as soon as possible. What does this have to do with Iran? It sends the message that we’re not accepting the exclusivity of the current Syria-Iran alliance, which is not very popular among Syria’s Sunni majority–and that we’re prepared to seduce Syria out of Iran’s orbit. It also sends the message that our diplomacy is going to be subtler, more clever than it has been.
2. Push hard on nuclear arsenal reductions with the Russians, which would set the table for a stronger non-proliferation regime internationally. Bush’s failure to do this was inexplicable. This could be the gateway for another important deal with the Russians–we drop the foolish fantasy of a European-based anti-missile system (and slow-walk the accession of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO) in return for real, verifiable Russian pressure on Iran to drop its nuclear enrichment program, including the possibility of a much stricter UN sanctions regime.
3.Offer Afghan carrots. There’s plenty of business in western Afghanistan that can be done jointly, if quietly, between the U.S. and Iran. The Afghan opium problem is a disaster for Iran: it has the highest percentage of heroin addicts in the world and might be open to joining NATO on an interdiction regime. There are also contracts–for asphalt, machine parts etc–that could be offered to Iranian companies as part of the U.S.-led Afghan development program. There should be a renewal of the Bonn process–that is, Afghanistan’s neighbors plus the U.S. and E.U.–in the stabilization of Afghanistan. (Iran was very helpful in Afghanistan until the Bush Administration declared it part of the Axis of Evil and froze it out.)
4. Open a U.S. interests section in Tehran. Condoleezza Rice was about to do this last August but Bush, unrelenting to the last, vetoed it. This would be the first step toward re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran.
After the U.S. did all these things, the ground would be prepared for more direct, bilateral talks with Iran at the special envoy level. There should be no rush to enter into direct talks, unless there is an intervening crisis. It can wait until after the Iranian presidential elections in June. But it’s crucial that the approach be comprehensive, using the variety of carrots and sticks at our disposal–in Syria, Russia, Afghanistan and Iraq.