Think Again

Think Again: Talking with Iran

With a new president in the White House and a celebrated reformist shaking up Tehran, the time seems ripe for a diplomatic breakthrough 30 years in the waiting. But when it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic, be forewarned: Washington's usual go-slow approach is doomed to fail.

The United States Should Wait to Engage Iran Until Ahmadinejad Is Gone

Wrong. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the problem, and hi rival Mohammad Khatami is not (necessarily) the solution. For many years, U.S. administrations have thought that, if they just waited long enough, Iranian politics would produce a leader that Washington would like dealing with. When I served as director for Iran and Afghanistan affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice dismissed then President Khatami as a potential diplomatic partner for the United States. Indeed, the erstwhile Sovietologist compared Khatami to Mikhail Gorbachev, arguing that by engaging Khatami, the United States would risk missing the opportunity to find the Islamic Republic's Boris Yeltsin.

Now, of course, after nearly four years of Ahmadinejad, the United States can hardly wait for Khatami to come back. Moreover, during Ahmadinejad's presidency, many in Washington have come to view Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a moderating influence -- this, of course, being the same ayatollah who, during Khatami's presidency, was widely criticized in the West as an authoritarian cleric thwarting the clear preference of the Iranian public for liberal reform.

Focusing on individual Iranian politicians misses an important reality: The Islamic Republic of Iran actually has a system of government, with multiple and competing power centers.

On foreign policy in particular, the system makes decisions by consensus. No president -- no matter how reformist or conservative in orientation -- will be able to force through significant changes in Iranian foreign policy without the acquiescence of other power centers, most notably the supreme leader.

This is why the breathless discussion of whether Washington should reach out to Tehran, be it with a letter from President Barack Obama or some sort of formal diplomatic proposal in advance of Iran's presidential election in June, is so misguided. The United States should make diplomatic proposals to Iran on their merits, recognizing that the Iranian power structure as a whole will be processing and responding to those proposals. Trying to game the Iranian political system in the hopes of ultimately finding a pliable Iranian interlocutor not only won't work; it will only confirm the worst suspicions in Tehran that the United States will never be willing to accept the Islamic Republic as Iran's legitimate political order.

The Iranian Government Is Too Divided to 'Deliver' in Any Serious Negotiation

Wrong again. This is a pearl of conventional wisdom dispensed by so-called American experts on Iran -- but only by those who have never negotiated with, nor perhaps even talked with, actual Iranian officials. The assertion is completely contradicted by several episodes of U.S. engagement with the Islamic Republic, going back more than 20 years. I myself participated in one of these episodes, negotiating with Iran over Afghanistan and al Qaeda for almost two years from 2001 to 2003 on behalf of the U.S. government.

During these talks, I saw firsthand how Iranian diplomats can negotiate productively, deliver on specific commitments they have made, and make concessions and calculate trade-offs across a range of issues to enhance their country's overall strategic position. My Iranian interlocutors were the three most senior officials responsible for the Islamic Republic's policy toward Afghanistan. They were knowledgeable, serious, and credible in their representations. If the United States is now sincere about diplomatic engagement with Tehran, there is no reason to expect that the Iranians tapped to meet with Obama's representatives -- regardless of who occupies the president's office in Tehran -- would be any less knowledgeable, serious, and credible.

Iran Is an Immature, Ideological State That Cannot Think About Its National Interest

No. It is commonly asserted in Washington that, if Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, it would use them to carry out alleged threats by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders to wipe Israel off the map. These threats would be carried out without any regard to the consequences that would befall Iran; according to this perspective, the Islamic Republic aspires to become history's first suicide nation.

The reality of Iran's national security strategy is far different. Candid conversations with Iranian officials confirm what long observation of Iranian policies strongly suggests: Iran pursues an asymmetric national security strategy, aimed at generating for the Islamic Republic the same security that conventional military capabilities, allies, and strategic depth -- all things that Iran does not have -- provide for other countries. This strategy includes developing unconventional military capabilities, including at least a nuclear weapons option as a last-ditch deterrent.

This strategy is not going to change as a result of Iran's upcoming presidential election. The Islamic Republic established its asymmetric national security strategy before Khatami was first elected in 1997. It was Iran's national security strategy during both terms of Khatami's presidency. It has remained Iran's national security strategy under Ahmadinejad. Perhaps something beyond individual personalities is at work here. If the United States and its allies want to stop Iran from going all the way to overt nuclear weaponization, they need to be prepared to address the Islamic Republic's most fundamental security concerns -- not to demonize individual Iranian politicians as latter-day Hitlers bent on a second Holocaust.

Iran's Support for Terrorism Confirms Its Irredeemably Aggressive and Malign Ambitions

Hardly. Here, too, Iranian policy needs to be understood in the context of the Islamic Republic's asymmetric national security strategy. Proxy actors -- political, paramilitary, and terrorist -- in neighboring states and elsewhere give Tehran tools to ensure that those states will not be used as anti-Iranian platforms, providing the Islamic Republic a measure of strategic depth it otherwise lacks. This element of Iran's national security strategy encompasses not only groups identified by Washington as terrorist organizations but also Iraqi and Afghan political parties and their associated militias.

Most problematic, the (willful?) failure of U.S. foreign-policy elites to understand the calculations motivating Iran's actions toward its proxy allies has profoundly distorted discussion in the United States and elsewhere of alleged Iranian ties to al Qaeda. Indeed, this failure has cost the United States opportunities to enlist the Islamic Republic as a potentially formidable partner in the fight against terrorism.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran detained literally hundreds of suspected al Qaeda operatives seeking to flee Afghanistan into Iran. Iran repatriated at least 200 of these individuals to the then new government of Hamid Karzai, to Saudi Arabia, and to other countries. The Iranian government documented these actions to the United Nations and the United States in February 2002, including providing copies of each repatriated individual's passport.

But Iran could not repatriate all of the individuals it detained. For example, the Islamic Republic has no diplomatic relations with Egypt, and Iranian diplomats told my colleagues and me that Tehran was not able to send al Qaeda operatives of Egyptian origin back to Egypt. Regrettably, instead of working to establish a framework within which Tehran could have made al Qaeda operatives detained in Iran available to the United States or some international body -- as our Iranian interlocutors requested -- the Bush administration insisted that Iran detain and deport all al Qaeda figures the United States believed might be in Iran, without any assistance from or reciprocal understandings with the United States. (This was meant to be a test of Iranian intentions.)

Later, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration told the Iranians that the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) -- an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group that the United States had for years identified as a terrorist organization -- would be targeted as an extension of Saddam Hussein's military apparatus. However, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the Pentagon granted the MEK special protected status, raising concerns in Tehran that Washington wanted to use the MEK as part of a campaign to bring down the Islamic Republic. Only at that point did the Iranians begin to view the al Qaeda operatives in its custody as a potential bargaining chip to use with Washington regarding the MEK.

Then, in response to the Bush administration's unconditional demands that Tehran turn over al Qaeda operatives the United States believed to be on Iranian soil, the Iranians offered a deal -- to exchange al Qaeda figures they had detained for MEK cadres in Iraq. To facilitate such an exchange, the Iranians offered to release all low- and mid-level MEK figures; to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor the treatment of any high-level MEK figures detained in Iran; and to forego application of the death penalty to any high-level MEK figures found guilty of crimes by Iranian courts. In the end, it was the Bush administration, not Iran, that rebuffed a deal that would have given the United States access to important al Qaeda operatives -- including, possibly, Saad bin Laden, Osama's son.

Diplomacy Should Focus on One or a Few Issues Where the Two Countries' Interests Overlap

No. This bit of conventional wisdom -- reminiscent of comedian Dana Carvey's imitation of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush (not too much, not too fast, wouldn't be prudent at this juncture) -- is also wrong. From my own experience, it is clear that trying to proceed incrementally with Tehran is doomed to fail. Our talks over Afghanistan were productive but structurally flawed: Because there was no comprehensive, strategic framework for dealing with the Iranians, unrelated issues could and did undermine otherwise productive negotiations.

If Obama is serious about diplomatic engagement with Iran, he needs to establish a comprehensive strategic framework for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy at the outset, rather than waiting in vain for some measure of trust to be established. Moreover, that framework needs to explicitly posit strategic realignment between Washington and Tehran as the talks' end goal. Without this, the Iranians will never believe that the United States is truly prepared to live with the Islamic Republic as Iran's legitimate government. They will continue to act in ways that they think are critical to defending their vital interests, but that Washington sees as unacceptably provocative. Unless the Unites States breaks this vicious cycle, already bad U.S.-Iranian relations will continue to deteriorate, and the United States and the Islamic Republic will be drawn ever closer to the point of conflict, even with the Obama administration's professed interest in diplomatic engagement.

U.S. President George W. Bush explicitly rejected repeated Iranian overtures to discuss the two countries' differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Although Obama has improved U.S. rhetoric with his repeated use of the phrase, mutual respect, he has yet to tackle the real challenge of changing the mind-set (his words from the campaign) of U.S. policymakers with regard to Iran and other daunting challenges in the Middle East. As the diplomatic dance between Washington and Iran quickens, we'll soon know if he is willing and able to pull off this far more difficult feat.

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Think Again

Think Again: Guantánamo

The risks posed by released detainees are overblown. Closing the prison at Guantánamo won’t be easy, but that’s a small price to pay to right a legal and moral wrong seven years in the making.

The Detainees at Guantnamo Are Hardened Terrorists

Not the majority. Since the prison opened seven years ago, confusion has reigned about exactly who is detained at Guantnamo. Officials at the prison initially knew almost nothing about their first 300 detainees beyond the hearsay reports that they were the worst of the worst. The detainees names, countries of origin, and even the languages they spoke were not immediately apparent. The circumstances of their capture and their association with al Qaeda or the Taliban were equally opaque. Only after investigators from various U.S. agencies began interviewing and interrogating the detainees, and combing through information from foreign police departments and intelligence agencies, did they find that many of their quarry had nothing to do with terrorism at all.

Even today, evidence to back up criminal charges against most of the prisoners -- now numbering 243 -- is scant. By all reports, about four dozen or so of the detainees will eventually be brought to trial, including the 14 high-value detainees that were transferred to Guantnamo in 2006, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another alleged planner of the 9/11 attacks. Another group may be labeled too dangerous to release due to statements they have made and associations they are suspected to have. For most of these men, there is insufficient evidence to convict them at trial, or the evidence could be rejected on the grounds that it was coerced and therefore is not admissible. A large group, likely the majority of the remaining 243, will be categorized as neither indictable nor posing a danger to the United States and released.

Gitmo Detainees Released in the United States Will Pose a Danger to Civilians

No. A not in my backyard attitude has dominated talk of detainee releases: No one wants them, for fear theyll pose a danger to civilians or plan fresh attacks.

But there are no plans, to my knowledge, to release any of the Guantnamo detainees onto U.S. soil. Therefore, the only danger would come from their breaking out of prison or attracting a terrorist attack. On the first point, the U.S. military has more than enough professional expertise to detain these prisoners securely. If U.S. prison authorities are capable of incarcerating hardened criminals without fear of their escaping, similar conditions can be created for these detainees. And an attack around one of the prisons is unlikely; among the places named as temporary holding facilities are prisons in South Carolina, Kansas, and Southern California. The Department of Homeland Security and other parts of the national security matrix have spent seven years devising ways of preventing terrorist attacks in far more densely populated and vulnerable locations.

If Released Abroad, Former Gitmo Detainees Will Mount Attacks Against U.S. Targets

In most instances, no. The specter of releasing a future terrorist has loomed large over the Guantnamo debate. According to U.S. government statistics, as many as 61 of the detainees who have been transferred or released from Guantnamo (from a total of 557 releases and transfers during the past seven years) have demonstrated some sort of terrorism-related activity since their release. But so far, those releases that proved problematic were ordered not by civilian courts after weighing evidence, but by executive-branch officials acting unilaterally without judicial supervision. Many of the now-free detainees were released early to European countries as a matter of diplomatic courtesy rather than as a result of responsible legal review. With a more serious evidentiary hearing to assess the potential danger posed by the detainees, fewer such mistakes could be made.

Recently, two former Guantnamo detainees were arrested for rejoining terrorist groups in Yemen. Whether their radicalization came due to their incarceration at Gitmo, or whether their alleged terrorism association predated Guantnamo, the fact remains that there will always be some risk of returning the detainees home. Aggressive diplomacy over conditions of release and attentiveness to terrorism threats in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Afghanistan will of necessity be a large part of the transfer and release agreements the new administration creates.

Closing Guantnamo Is Primarily a Legal Issue

Nope, its largely a diplomatic one. It isnt only personnel at the Defense Department and the Justice Department who need to put in overtime figuring out how to close the prison at Guantnamo. Its also the diplomats at the State Department.

Nearly 800 terrorists have been held at Guantnamo during the past seven years. Nearly 560 of them have been released or transferred to their countries of origin or to third countries through diplomatic means. Of those returned, more than 300 have been sent either to Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. Most of those returns have been done absent any trial.

Going forward, aggressive diplomacy will be the single vital tool in closing Guantnamo. Detainees from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan constitute the majority of those remaining in U.S. custody. To get them home, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have to put pressure on these countries to ensure that the prisoners wont be subjected to torture after they are returned. The Obama-Clinton team will also have to get assurances that if the individuals are released, local law enforcement will keep abreast of their activities if such surveillance is necessary. And violations of these agreements will be taken seriously.

The United States Needs a Special National Security Court for Hard Cases

Not yet. More than 700 terrorism-related defendants have gone through U.S. courts since September 2001. Nearly all of these cases have resulted in convictions of some sort, though often on lesser charges because the evidence of terrorism is often tenuous. For example, defendants initially arraigned on terrorism charges are frequently convicted of immigration violations or document fraud. As a result of the lack of terrorism convictions, the courts have appeared inadequate to the task of trying such suspects. But going forward, solid cases -- with clear evidence and clear terrorism links -- would likely fare just as well in the courts today as they did in the 1990s, when federal courts successfully tried and convicted hardened terrorists such as the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing and the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa.

A new and untried national security court would be time-consuming to create and might not even solve the problems of prosecuting terrorists. Waiting for all the glitches to be ironed out would drain energy from the pressing legal issues that need to be addressed at this point in time, including how to assess evidence against alleged terrorists and on what grounds to bring terrorism-related indictments, including material support charges.

Thanks to Gitmo, It Will Take Years to Rebuild Goodwill Toward the United States

No. On the contrary, the resolution of Guantnamo is a unique opportunity to heal, with a stroke of the pen, the American image in the world. Obamas executive orders on his first day in office are a symbolic announcement of a new and different United States. More can and should be done along these lines, including formal apologies to the detainee population, as well as the possibility of reparations for those who are deemed, in future days, to have been held erroneously. Maher Arar sued the Canadian government for his rendition to Syria and was awarded $11.5 million. Whether or not there are reparations, there needs to be acknowledgment that the United States made mistakes in apprehending most of the Guantnamo detainees. We can only hope that under this new administration, the country is confident enough to admit to its mistakes and right the many legal, not to mention moral, wrongs of the past seven years.

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