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Can Obama Do Nixon-to-China on Iran?


President Richard Nixon meets with Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Beijing, Feb. 21, 1972.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

The Obama administration will be making a big mistake if it interprets Iran’s insistence that the U.S. not “point a gun” at it as a rejection of serious diplomacy. Appearing on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, Flynt pushed back against the mainstream narrative about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei’s statement on bilateral negotiations with the United States last week. Flynt explained,

“It is actually incorrect to say that the Supreme Leader rebuffed bilateral negotiations with the United States. If you look at his record — he’s been Supreme Leader for 23 years; for eight years before that he was the Islamic Republic’s elected president. He has a very long record. Throughout his tenure in public life, he has said that the Islamic Republic would be open to improved relations with the United States, would even welcome that — but that this would only be possible on the basis of mutual respect and with the United States accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate order representing legitimate national interests.

“It is simply incoherent and ineffective for the United States to think it’s going to be able to get into negotiations while it is continuing to conduct economic warfare, cyber warfare, and basically say it wants to see regime change in Tehran. This is not going to work, and if we stay on this path, it’s ultimately going to lead to another U.S.-initiated war in the region.”

Though some assert that President Obama offered Iran “negotiations based on mutual respect” in his March 2009 Nowruz message, Flynt recounted, “Two days after Obama’s video for the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, the Supreme Leader, in his own annual Nowruz speech, addressed this video. And he said, we have this long litany of grievance against the United States. But this is a new administration; we have no experience with this administration. President Obama says he wants change, he wants better relations; that’s good.

“And I say to him, if he changes his policies toward Iran, we will change, too. And from an Iranian perspective, they have been waiting for some sign, in terms of policy, that this administration is really serious about improved relations. And instead, the policy, from an Iranian perspective — on sanctions, on cyber warfare, on covert ops, all of this stuff — has gotten worse.

“If you want to know what serious diplomacy would look like, look what Richard Nixon did toward China after he came to office, knowing that it was strategically vital for the United States to open a door to this rising regional power. Nixon ordered the CIA to stand down from covert operations in Tibet. He ordered the Seventh Fleet to stop aggressive patrolling in the Taiwan Strait. He did this so when he actually reached out to the Chinese leadership, they would know he was serious. The Iranian leadership is looking for something like that from Obama, and they have never gotten it.”

Flynt also took on facile claims that both sides are too bound up with their own domestic politics and internal conflicts to make much diplomatic progress with one another:

“I certainly acknowledge that there is a lot of politics in Iran, including over its foreign policy. But I think if you look at the record, the Islamic Republic has shown itself, on multiple occasions over the last quarter century, of being able to cooperate effectively with the United States on issues where there was some common overlap, and it has frequently expressed an interest in building on that, to try and build a different sort of strategic relationship. Each time it has been the United States that pulls the plug on that tactical cooperation, even though the Iranians have been delivering in it…

“On the American side — and I say this as an American — I think what’s really important is, What is America’s interest here? We may not like to face this reality, but the reality is that, in relative terms, the United States is a power in decline in the Middle East; the Islamic Republic of Iran is a rising power. At this point, the United States can’t achieve any of its objectives in the Middle East absent a better and more productive relationship with Iran.

“But instead of dealing with that reality, the Obama administration — like the George W. Bush and the Clinton administrations before it — pursues a counterproductive search for dominance in the region, where it can micromanage political outcomes, where its ally Israel has an almost absolute freedom of unilateral military advantage.

“That strategy is not working for the United States; the United States is getting weaker as it continues to pursue this strategy, and we need to realize what is in our interest and realign our relations with Iran, just as thoroughly as we realigned our relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s.”

In discussing the possibilities and requirements for diplomatic progress, Flynt disputed descriptions of the nuclear issue as exceptionally complex and contentious:

“The nuclear issue is very simple. If the United States would recognize Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment, you could negotiate a deal on the nuclear issue in a matter of weeks. But the administration won’t do that.”

In this context, Flynt also disputed characterizations of the Obama administration’s October 2009 proposal for a “fuel swap” deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor as containing an implicit recognition of Iran’s right to enrich: “The October 2009 deal did not recognize Iran’s right to enrich. That’s why it was a bad deal; that’s why the Leader rejected it. A few months later, Iran agreed to every single condition that the administration had laid out, in a document that it negotiated with Brazil and Turkey. But that document said Iran also has a right to enrich. And it’s the Obama administration that rejected that deal.”

The Obama administration is coming very close to discrediting engagement as a vastly superior alternative to war with Iran. As the administration prepares for the next round of nuclear talks in Kazakhstan later this month, President Obama and his national security team should treat Khamenei’s statement laying out what is necessary for serious negotiations as the important diplomatic opening that it is.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and – from 2001 to 2003 – was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of the new book,Going to Tehran. [For a direct link with video, click here:

(Originally posted at Consortium News)

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