Argument

Want to Defuse the Iran Crisis?

Here's how President Barack Obama can begin to reverse 30 years of enmity.

Sometime in the next few weeks, if the parties can agree on a place and date convenient to all sides, Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the "P5+1," will meet for the first time since October 2009 to revive diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program. This is welcome news for U.S. President Barack Obama who, almost two years into his first term, has learned the hard way that diplomacy with Iran is neither quick nor easy.

The posturing has already begun. To create greater political space at home, administration officials have told the media that a new and tougher proposal will be presented to the Iranians. The United States will negotiate from a position of strength, the White House says, as a result of the surprisingly harsh sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, both by the U.N. Security Council and unilaterally by individual countries.

The Iranians are trying to sound equally confident: Sanctions, while biting, have not affected Iran's nuclear calculus, they say. In fact, Tehran contends that it is now in a stronger position due to its larger stockpile of low-enriched uranium, its progress on 20 percent enriched uranium, and the imminent activation of the Bushehr nuclear plant, which is only weeks from going online.

The reality is that neither side has gained the upper hand since 13 months ago, when the last round of talks commenced. The increased international pressure may have sharpened Iran's choices, but the Obama administration has no illusions that sanctions alone will cause the Islamic Republic to relent on its nuclear ambitions. Neither Washington nor Tehran has time on its side.

While the Iranian government has regained control after brutally suppressing pro-democracy protests, it faces growing isolation and dire economic realities. And while the failed talks in October 2009 strengthened the White House's ability to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, the same will not be true going forward. The value of greater international unity around sanctions will be marginal compared with the value of taking first steps toward a diplomatic resolution of the longstanding issues that fuel U.S.-Iran enmity. This time around, diplomacy must succeed for the sake of resolving the conflict, not for the sake of creating an impetus for more sanctions.

So what can be done differently this time around? The Obama administration should carefully study the failed negotiations of October 2009 and adjust its approach to take into account the lessons learned from that round of talks. Although Iran clearly bears a great deal of responsibility for the stalemate of the past 13 months, there is also room for improvement in the U.S. approach. Here is a list of the five lessons that diplomats should keep in mind before stepping into the room with Iranian negotiators.

1) Don't Let the Fuel-Swap Deal Hold the Negotiation Process Hostage

In October 2009, the United States expressed its willingness to discuss a range of issues with Iran -- but only after the Islamic Republic agreed to ship out 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in return for fuel rods to power Tehran's research reactor. The Obama administration saw this deal as a confidence-building measure and a necessary step to push back against domestic critics of diplomacy, reduce Iran's nuclear breakout capability, and create more time for dialogue.

The plan faltered when the Iranians did not -- or could not -- agree. But the fact that comprehensive diplomacy had been made conditional on the fuel-swap deal meant that much-needed talks on issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and human rights were then stalled, leaving all parties in a worse situation.

In the future, any potential iteration of the reactor deal should be treated as the tactical confidence-building measure it is, not a strategic sine qua non. Failure to cut a deal on this single issue should not mean that the entire agenda of U.S.-Iran negotiations grinds to a halt.

2) Get by with a Little Help from Your Friends

Iran's relationship with every one of the "P5+1" countries ranges from bad to worse. Particularly between the United States and Iran, habits developed over 30 years of enmity are tough to break. There is a huge reservoir of mistrust, suspicion, and hostility. Resolving the nuclear dispute through a mechanism almost completely void of trust is a formidable task. Although the Security Council process cannot be sidestepped, it can be complemented by relying on states that -- due to their cordial relations with both the permanent members and Iran -- can inject trust into the diplomatic process.

Turkish and Brazilian diplomats, who worked furiously from November 2009 to May 2010 in an attempt to breathe life into a fuel-swap deal, have spent more time engaged in diplomacy with Iran recently than the entire P5+1 combined. This experience strengthened their relationships with all relevant Iranian parties and gave them valuable insights into the Iranian perspective. If the negotiations are to succeed, the trust that Turkey and Brazil have built will be indispensable.

3) Talk to Everyone in Iran -- Directly

As the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that does not have a direct channel to Iran, Washington is at a significant disadvantage. Obama administration officials recognize that, on numerous instances this past fall, opportunities to salvage the fuel-swap deal existed -- if only the United States and Iran could speak to each other directly. Going forward, efforts should be made to quickly establish such a channel. And the belief that dialogue is only possible if a singular authentic channel to Iran is found must be discarded. Such a channel doesn't exist.

Rather, Washington should recognize that there are many power centers in Iran, all of which need to be included in the process. Just as no country expects to sign a significant deal with the United States without addressing the concerns of the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and Congress, no major decision is likely to be made in Iran unless a range of key stakeholders is brought into the discussion. This partly explains Turkey and Brazil's success in getting Iran to agree to the U.S. modalities of the nuclear swap. Their diplomacy with Iran was not focused on a single stakeholder in Tehran. Rather, these countries built confidence with and won support for their mediation from all relevant Iranian power centers.

If direct engagement with the Majlis, the supreme leader's office, and other political centers and factions isn't immediately possible, negotiators must be willing to give them time, so that these stakeholders' inclination to scuttle a deal that they were not a part of is neutralized. Pressing Iran's fractured political system to give a quick yes usually results in them saying no. A first step toward strengthening the diplomatic efforts would be to revise the "no contact" policy that prohibits U.S. diplomats from interacting with their Iranian counterparts.

4) Don't Forget Human Rights

Reducing 30 years of wide-ranging U.S.-Iran tensions to a single-variable negotiation is not a formula for success. As the agenda enlarges and the conversation continues, the United States must address the Islamic Republic's human rights abuses. The human rights violations committed by the Iranian government in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election were a clear violation of Iran's international obligations -- regardless of whether there was fraud in the election, regardless of who had won the election, and indeed, regardless of whether there had been any election. The Obama administration hasn't pressed the issue, both to protect pro-democracy activists within the country and to avoid seeming to interfere, something neither the Green Movement's leaders nor the government would likely be enthused about.

But the lack of an adequate response has done more harm than good. In the eyes of some in the Iranian Green Movement, Washington seemed so eager to secure a nuclear deal that it was ready to sacrifice the Iranian people's human rights in the process. The setup appears analogous to the state of relations that existed under the shah: a relationship centered on security at the expense of basic freedoms, and the cardinal sin that poisons relations between the two countries to this day.

A healthy, long-term relationship with Iran cannot be built if the current reservoir of American soft power among the Iranian population is squandered for the sake of a nuclear deal. Just as Iranians' respect and admiration for American achievements, values, and culture would be jeopardized in the event of a military attack on Iran, silence on human rights will likewise deplete this crucial strategic asset.

This is particularly important because an Iranian opening to the United States will likely be accompanied with a tightening of domestic restrictions as the government will not want its policy to be understood as a sign of weakness.

5) Play the Long Game

Obama shouldn't kid himself, or the American public: Diplomacy with Iran is hard, and it's going to get harder. Since Obama took office, political space in Washington to pursue diplomacy with Iran has consistently shrunk. This has primarily been caused by the actions of the Iranian government, including the election fraud and post-election abuses committed by Tehran. And, after the Republican midterm election victory, it's only going to shrink more.

The Obama administration must go into the talks focused on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran. It also must be willing to make the political investment necessary to give the process a chance to succeed. If the administration is going to retreat at the first sign of Iranian intransigence or congressional opposition -- which are both probably inevitable -- then it might be better not to embark on a new round of diplomacy to begin with.

An institutionalized enmity that has taken 30 years to build will not be undone through a few meetings over the course of a few weeks. Neither side should expect that its first offer will be accepted. A generation of officials in the United States and Iran has made their careers by proving how nasty they can be to the other side. It is very easy to slip back into old patterns if an attempt to break the deadlock doesn't yield immediate results.

Success will only come if diplomats are willing to play the long game, placing a premium on patience and long-term progress rather than quick fixes aimed at appeasing skeptical and impatient domestic political constituencies, whether in Tehran or in Washington.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Children of the Revolution

Why does Greece still have left-wing terrorists?

The letter bombs sent to embassies in Athens and heads of state throughout Europe last week halted Greek mail and international delivery services and sparked opportunistic street demonstrations. Bomb squads cordoned off streets, choking Athens with apocalyptic traffic jams. Militants have staged about one attack per month over the past 14 months, but the embassy bombings marked a broader, more coordinated level of violence -- and the first time in the history of Greek terrorism that foreign leaders have been targeted, lending credence to the theory among terrorism experts that Greek militants are looking for collaborators outside the country, as well as to enhance their reputation internationally.

Athens police have questioned two Greeks suspected to be responsible for the latest bombings, both unemployed men in their early 20s and alleged to be members of a Greek terrorist group that also committed several nonlethal attacks last year. A suspicious package delivered to the Hungarian Embassy on Tuesday was found to have contained only documents, and Athens has by and large returned to normality. Meanwhile, jaded Athenians grappled for explanations: Why is it that disaffected French students go on strike while middle-class Greek students bomb embassies?

Although Greek terrorism has been occasionally erupting for decades, its inchoate ideological inspiration has made it difficult for many Greeks to understand what motivates the increasing violence of the country's militant youth. At times accompanied by anti-capitalist sloganeering and anarchist proclamations, Greek terrorism has also been perpetrated with no defined message at all.

"We have problems with authority," said Paraskos Mantagos, a senior investment manager at a large Greek bank, from his home in Athens. He paused, and then let out a long breath. "I haven't grasped what is going on, to be honest. It's almost like a fashion."

Elaine Papoulias, director of the Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, notes that it's a byproduct of Greece's unique political culture. "In France, political parties do not permeate every social and economic fabric in life as they do in Greece," said Papoulias in an interview. "The turn to violence in some ways can be seen as a rejection of this system where politics is ubiquitous and dictates what job you have, what cafes you frequent, what football teams you support, what newspapers you read. Violence has become a means of political expression and a way to clearly reject participation in traditional modes of political life, be it voting, joining a party or trade union."

And with the country in a deep financial crisis that has led to belt-tightening austerity measures (imposed in exchange for $150 billion in emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union), Greek middle-class youth have been especially inclined to reject politics as usual. But Greece's 20th-century history also has a role to play in the turn to violence.

"Greek resistance goes back to the fight against the Germans in World War II and the Greek dictatorship in the 1970s," says Aristotle Michopoulos, director of Greek studies at Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass. "And who are going to resist? The middle class and the upper class -- these people are the losers in this financial crisis. Don't forget Che Guevara was middle class."

But neither the financial crisis nor Greek history fully explains why homegrown terrorism has failed to surface elsewhere in Europe.

Kostas Bakoyannis, the newly elected 32-year-old mayor of Karpenisi, a small town in northern Greece, compared last week's violence to the Columbine High School shootings. "These are middle-class kids who have lost hope. It's a little like the Bowling Alone concept" -- referring to the idea, promulgated in a book by Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam that societies markedly decline when citizens retreat from civic organizations. "Institutional life doesn't touch them." Unemployment among Greek youth is the highest in Europe, and traditionally Greek youth have looked to government for job growth. Meanwhile, Greece has few mainstream social organizations to engage its youth.

And, in fact, leftist and anarchist terrorism has continued in Greece while largely having been snuffed out in the rest of Europe. Homegrown, ideologically inspired terrorist acts by groups like Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang and Italy's Red Brigades were common in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, but these organizations closed shop by the 1990s due to effective policing, robust economies, depoliticized university cultures, and changing political currents. Greek's militants, however, seem to receive a different message.

A rash of far-left militant groups rooted in Greek universities with comic-book names like the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, Rebel Sect, and Revolutionary Struggle, have mounted increasingly sophisticated attacks on police, government officials, diplomats, and prominent business leaders since a violent street riot erupted in Athens in 2008 after a police shooting of an unarmed teenager.

Most of these student-led organizations spun out of the November 17th Group, or N17, named after a student uprising in Athens on that date in 1973. Linked to a number of bank robberies, N17 was fiercely anti-American and anti-Turkish and claimed allegiance to a revolutionary Marxist dogma. The group was perhaps best known for gunning down a CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, in 1975, but claimed responsibility for more than 20 murders, including those of U.S. military officers, Turkish diplomats, and Greek industrialists. A muscular investigation led to Greek police arresting most of the N17's leadership in the beginning of the 2000s, largely putting an end to the organization.

But other radical groups sprang from N17, the most lethal being the Sect of Revolutionaries, which claimed responsibility for the murders of a policeman and a journalist in 2009, in retaliation for the 2008 police shooting. This August, the group promised to turn Greece into a "war zone" in response to government austerity measures and the prevalence of big corporations in Greek society, a threat still hanging over the country.

Student life in Greece is extremely politically engaged. While the financial crisis has shredded the Greek economy, homegrown terrorism is deeply rooted and continually incubated in the country's public universities, where a violent student revolt in 1974 helped overthrow Greece's authoritarian governing junta.

"Students continue to believe in 1974 ideals and tactics even though the world has shifted," said Kyriakos Pierrakakis, the 27-year-old chairman of the Institute for Youth, a department of the Greek Ministry of Education responsible for shaping and coordinating youth policies for the government.

Pierrakakis points to the structure of the public universities (private universities are prohibited in Greece) where political clientelism is encouraged and campuses enjoy immunity from police jurisdiction. He also cites Article 16 of the Greek Constitution, which enshrines a political role for student organizations. The result has been a perpetuation of the violent anti-establishment mindset grounded in the radical ideologies of the early 1970s youth movements.

"The law mandates student participation in politics, and the moment students enter the university they know they must play a role that is widely understood -- because of Greek culture -- to be a radical one. This is a university system where entrepreneurship is vilified, a culture against the private sector," said Pierrakakis.

Greek authorities have promised swift police action against last week's terrorism and also have focused on changing policy, in particular Article 16 and structural problems in the university system. Prime Minister George Papandreou, emboldened by his ruling PASOK socialist party's slew of victories in this past weekend's slate of local elections, dropped threats for an early federal election and has promised to move ahead on austerity measures that reverse his 2009 election promise to boost welfare spending. This means the Greek government has the task of eroding the appeal of Greece's terrorism networks at precisely the same time the Greek economy is likely to offer fewer opportunities for its disaffected youth. Meanwhile, its European neighbors, already skeptical of Greece's financial management, have cause for more concern about eruptions of violence in the country now that bombs have reached some of their own heads of state.

Domestic Greek terrorism has largely flown under the international media radar. The throwback anti-capitalism dogma, the relatively few number of casualties, and the more dynamic and pernicious threat from Islamist terrorism networks originating outside Europe all make Greek terrorists seem somewhat anachronistic.

But there are reasons to take these groups seriously. While targets have generally been limited to individuals or single buildings -- and explosives have typically used over-the-counter technologies -- Greek terrorists "are quite amateur, but very inventive," European security expert Mary Bossi told the Associated Press. She predicted anti-capitalist groups will gravitate toward greater use of violence in Europe in response to the Greek parcel bombings.

There is a danger, terrorism analysts note, that Greek radicals might find among the country's underemployed youth many more adherents attracted to leftist ideologies, or the stylish flourishes like the hollowed-out books used to deliver last week's letter bombs. At a base level, there is widespread anger among Greeks at their government; there's little debate that, to date, the Greek economy is the biggest European loser of the financial crisis.

"There is a prevailing underdog culture in Greece," said the Kennedy School's Papoulias. "which has for decades been indifferent in many ways to violence, as is evidenced in the way many Greeks felt solidarity with groups or figures who were seen to have stood up to perceived imperialism -- with Slobodan Milosevic, the PKK, even with the domestic terrorist group November 17."

Bakoyannis, the newly elected mayor, goes further: "There is a culture of, let me say, permissiveness. Violence is more accepted here than in other countries, and we could have a very long discussion about why this is -- you could take it back to the 1830s when the Greek state was established, for example -- but it is a fact." Bakoyannis, whose father, a member of parliament, was assassinated by the N17 group in the 1980s, has founded a group to bring together children of Greek terrorism victims.

But for Pierrakakis, the Institute for Youth director, there's a greater fear than the threat of new, leftist terrorism: "The one thing I think about before I go to sleep is whether Greek youth will migrate. My number one fear is not radicalization ... but whether young Greeks will stay around to change the mode of Greek cultural expression away from violence."

With Greece now aggressively confronting its financial crisis head-on, it's unlikely Pierrakakis will have to wait long to find out.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images