Barack Obama, the US president-elect, must radically overhaul US policy on Iran by shunning confrontation and jettisoning attempts to isolate the Islamic republic through sanctions, a group of 20 former senior US diplomats and regional analysts urged yesterday. They warned that a military attack on Iran would "backfire" and called for unconditional, direct and comprehensive negotiations, insisting this was the only way to break a "cycle of threats and defiance".
The report, presented at a conference in Washington hosted by the National Iranian American Council, which promotes diplomacy to resolve nearly three decades of Iranian-US enmity, said: "The United States needs to stop the provocations and take a long-term view with this regime, as it did with the Soviet Union and China." The analysts urged Washington to replace calls for regime change in Tehran with a strategy that would allow Iran a "place at the table" in shaping the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, where Iran and the United States share common interests.
The group includes Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, and James Dobbins, a former US special envoy to Afghanistan and top diplomatic troubleshooter under Bill Clinton and George W Bush. The group was co-led by one of the United States' pre-eminent experts on Iran, Gary Sick of New York's Columbia University. He served on the National Security Council under former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the ensuing US Embassy hostage crisis.
Their statement said: "Paradoxical as it may seem amid all the heated media rhetoric, sustained engagement is far more likely to strengthen United States national security at this stage than either escalation to war or continued efforts to threaten, intimidate or coerce Iran." Their advice is in stark contrast to that recently proffered by the so-called Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank that urged Mr Obama from his first day in office to bolster the US military presence in the Gulf and tighten sanctions against Iran. This, it argued, would give Washington a stronger hand in muscular diplomacy to rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions. If negotiations failed, it added, the United States would then be primed for military action "as a last resort".
That hawkish report was written with the support of Dennis Ross, one of Mr Obama's most influential advisers on the Middle East, who is regarded as staunchly pro-Israeli by Iranians and Palestinians. Tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions will be one of Mr Obama's foremost foreign policy challenges after he takes office on Jan 20. He has said he would harden sanctions but also has held out the possibility of direct talks in which Iran would be offered improved incentives in return for ending uranium enrichment.
Yesterday's Joint Experts' Statement on Iran came as Tehran sent what could be interpreted as further signals of goodwill to the US president-elect after an unprecedented congratulatory message to Mr Obama by Iran's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, hailed Iraq's approval on Sunday of a controversial military pact with the US, which allows US forces to stay in Iraq until 2011. Washington had for months accused Iran of sabotaging the prospect of such a security pact, which is still being lambasted by other influential Iranian politicians and hardline Iranian media as "US-sponsored capitulation" by Baghdad. But the endorsement of Ayatollah Shahroudi, who is appointed by Iran's all-powerful supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sends a possible message to Mr Obama that Iran will not act as a spoiler against the landmark security agreement. In another apparent goodwill gesture, Iran's judiciary said Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American student who was detained on security grounds last month, could leave the country. And Tehran said yesterday that it would not hinder an offer by Turkey to mediate between the Islamic republic and the new US administration. The Joint Experts' Statement on Iran said: "US efforts to manage Iran through isolation, threats and sanctions have been tried intermittently for more than two decades. In that time they have not solved any major problem in US-Iran relations, and have made most of them worse." The statement also addressed "myths" it said had been used by US hawks to discourage engagement, among them the notion that the religious nature of Iran's regime rendered it undeterrable and that its leadership was implacably opposed to the United States and determined to "wipe Israel off the map". The statement gave specific examples of Tehran's foreign policy pragmatism over the past 20 years, including its arms trade with Israel during the 1980s and its vital support for the US overthrow of Afghanistan's Taliban regime. Iran's "recent history makes it crystal clear that national self-preservation and regional influence - not some quest for martyrdom in the service of Islam - is Iran's main foreign policy goal", the statement said. Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who hopes to become prime minister in elections in February, has urged Mr Obama to maintain a tough line on Tehran, arguing that talks with Iran "may be interpreted as a sign of weakness". But Israel's military intelligence chief yesterday asserted the time could be ripe for dialogue between Tehran and Washington. "If it fails, it will lead to the strengthening of sanctions," Gen Amos Yadin said. "Dialogue is not appeasement." firstname.lastname@example.org