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Before Obama leaves office, here’s what he should do about Iran

Washington Post

Zalmay Khalilzad and James Dobbins

Zalmay Khalilzad was U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations under President George W. Bush.  James Dobbins was a Special Envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama.


America’s relationship with Iran poses a classic geopolitical dilemma. Iran is an important regional power that pursues adversarial policies with its neighbors and represses its people at home. Yet the United States can only address key issues affecting U.S. interests if it engages Tehran wherever possible. As it did vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States needs to pursue policies designed to preclude regional hegemony and to create a balance of power in the region, while also expressing support for human rights and engaging Iran diplomatically.

If the chaos in the Middle East is to be calmed, the United States will have to work not just with traditional partners but also with competitors. Iran has contributed to the sectarian polarization of the Middle East and the conflicts that region has fostered, but it isn’t the sole cause of these. Washington and Tehran are at loggerheads over Syria, but they support the same governments and leaders in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

To enable productive engagement, the United States will have to work with its partners in the region to establish a favorable balance of power. This means continuing its military deployments and arms sales to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf, while asserting its rights under the new nuclear agreement to prevent Iran from making covert progress toward a weapon. At the same time, the United States should start planning a policy framework to deter Iran from restarting nuclear programs once certain restrictions in the agreement lapse. Finally, the United States and its partners must jointly compete against Iran in Iraq and Syria.

Such efforts will better position the United States to engage Iran to settle regional conflicts and defeat the Islamic State. Each of us led discussions with Iran during the administration of George W. Bush, and we were able to achieve limited understandings in some areas and even active cooperation in others. The Bonn Agreement, which established the post-Taliban interim government in Afghanistan, was the apogee of this cooperation, and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without Iran’s support. Notably, this success occurred in the context of the active assertion of U.S. power against the Taliban. The United States can likewise craft policies to shape the political and military contexts in Iraq and Syria.

During the Obama administration, contacts with Iran have focused most heavily on nuclear issues. But these contacts occur irregularly, involve a small circle of individuals and tend to address only the most urgent issues. Secretary of State John F. Kerry may have Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on speed dial, but there is only so much that two very busy men can accomplish. In any case, Kerry will likely be leaving office in a few months, and the U.S.-educated Zarif will eventually do the same. There is no guarantee their successors will establish the same kind of rapport. U.S. policy should not be dependent on their doing so.

That’s why before he leaves office, President Obama should take steps to enhance communications between the two countries. The most obvious move would be to reestablish normal diplomatic relations. It is not clear that the Iranian regime would be ready to go this far, however, and such a step would be quite controversial in the United States as well.

Short of that, however, the Obama administration and the Iranian government could assign middle-ranking U.S. and Iranian diplomats to the interests sections of the embassies that already represent each to the other. It is worth noting that the United States had a substantial diplomatic presence in Cuba before the resumption of full diplomatic relations last year. An even more modest measure would be for the United States to simply allow Iranian diplomats accredited to the United Nations in New York to travel to Washington on occasion. Such a gesture might be reciprocated by Iran, allowing visits by U.S. officials based in Dubai, where the United States maintains an office that monitors Iranian affairs.

U.S.-Iranian engagement should certainly focus on the battle against the Islamic State, but it should also focus on the pathways to stabilizing the region. The United States should seek to help Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran come to an understanding regarding Iraq and Syria and to explore a Westphalia-like agreement to curb sectarian and geopolitical conflict. Such an agreement will not occur without active mediation from the outside. Currently, only the United States can play that role.

In addition, Obama should not ignore the aspirations of the Iranian people, many of whom hope for greater freedom and contact with the world. Human rights issues should be part of the agenda for any enhanced engagement. Also, the United States should facilitate private travel between the two countries for students, scholars and ordinary citizens. The best way to do this would be to resume direct commercial flights between the two countries. This step would be of particular benefit to the hundreds of thousands of Iranian Americans and their many relatives in Iran.

None of these steps would resolve the many differences between the United States and Iran on their own. Better communication does not always yield accommodation. But better communication always yields better information, and better information always permits, even if it cannot guarantee, better policy. It is difficult to see how the Middle East can be stabilized without engaging and coming to some understandings with Iran.

Modi’s Visit to Washington

Wilson Center

Michael Kugelman

Narendra Modi’s Washington rehabilitation is complete. That’s the chief takeaway from the Indian prime minister’s three-day visit to the U.S. capital. His agenda included a sit-down with President Barack Obamaaddressing a joint session of Congress; and meetings with top CEOs, the World Bank director, several U.S. Cabinet members, and Washington think tankers.

Mr. Modi received a hero’s welcome from elected officials when he arrived at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, and his address to Congress drew multiple standing ovations. Many people hugged the prime minister as he entered and exited. Mr. Modi has come a long way in a short time; a decade ago, he was persona non grata in Washington. He was denied a visa to the U.S. in 2005 because officials thought that he hadn’t done enough to stop anti-Muslim riots in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister there. After he was elected prime minister two years ago, the Obama administration opted not to ban the leader of a rising democratic power critical to U.S. interests. Rather than hold a grudge, Mr. Modi impressed upon Washington his desire to deepen bilateral relations. He won over the Obama administration relatively easily, but not until this trip did he demonstrate the respect he has earned in Congress—which has been the source of several tension points, thanks to lawmakers’ criticism of India’s human rights record and visa policies that New Delhi has lambasted as discriminatory to Indian workers in the U.S.

As I wrote Monday, a major objective of both leaders was for this trip to amplify the countries’ shared valuesconvergent interests, and depth of the relationship. This was meant to help signal that U.S.-India ties are poised to remain strong whoever is elected in November. Both the joint statement issued after Mr. Modi’s meeting with the president and the prime minister’s congressional address referred to a “natural” and “indispensable” relationship; joint bedrock beliefs in freedom and democracy; and similarities between both nations’ founders. One of the largest applause lines in Mr. Modi’s  speech was his reference to the 3 million-strong Indian-American community, which is often cited by both governments as a natural bridge.

For all the talk of defense as the pillar of the U.S.-India relationship, climate change occupies an increasingly critical position as well. Climate change and “clean energy” were a long section of the joint statement, which pledged stepped-up collaborations with U.S. financing of and technology for more environmentally-friendly energy in India. The Modi administration has interest in low-carbon energy projects (though it has not said explicitly that it will pursue emissions-reduction policies). Perhaps in part because of the public health consequences of India’s air-pollution levels, New Delhi no longer reflexively argues that it has a right to pollute for economic development. India’s greater receptivity to mitigating climate change is a boon for bilateral relations.

The trip produced deals on energy and educational exchanges, but final terms were not reached on the biggest pending projects—significantly, a plan to have Westinghouse help build nuclear reactors in India advanced but isn’t complete; also still pending is an accord allowing the U.S. and India to use each other’s military facilities for refueling and repairs. Additionally, while the joint statement said the United States would join the Paris Agreement climate accord this year, it said only that New Delhi would “work toward this shared objective.” The Obama administration wants India to formally join the accord before the U.S. presidential election, moving the agreement one step closer to enforcement (at which point nations cannot opt out for a period of four years, so the next U.S. president would not be able to withdraw).

For Mr. Obama’s legacy and for the good of the overall relationship, U.S. and Indian officials will want to reach closure soon on other pending initiatives.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.