Backed Into a Corner

Hey America, there's a pretty good reason why Iran doesn't trust you. Maybe it's time for a different approach.

The Obama administration has done more to undermine Iran over the past three years than any U.S. presidency in the 33 years since the Iranian revolution. Under the shadow of a policy of "engagement," the United States and Israel have led a campaign of economic, cyber, and covert war against Iran. Yet this coercive approach, conducted along with sporadic negotiations on nuclear issues between Iran and the P5+1 group of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States has failed to resolve the future of Iran's nuclear program.

The primary issue is mistrust. American and Western politicians continuously reiterate their mistrust of Tehran but seem not to understand that this mistrust is mutual. Iran has profound reasons to distrust the West. The United States and the Britain orchestrated the 1953 coup that removed Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and installed a dictator, supporting him for a quarter century. Following the Iranian revolution, the West unilaterally withdrew from its contractual commitments and left Iran with billions of dollars of unfinished industrial and nuclear projects. In 1980, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, sparking an economically ruinous eight-year war in which Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran, and 300,000 Iranians lost their lives. The United States and the West supported the aggressor in that conflict. In 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian jetliner, killing 290 innocent civilians, including 66 children.

In 1989, during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency, Iran welcomed a proposal by President George H.W. Bush -- encapsulated by Bush's declaration that "goodwill begets goodwill" -- for hostages in exchange for unfreezing Iranian assets. Iran facilitated the release of American and Western hostages in Lebanon. Instead of goodwill, the United States responded by heightening pressures and hostilities, which convinced Iran's new leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the United States could not be trusted to keep its promises. During Mohammad Khatami's presidency, Iran was among the first countries to condemn the 9/11 terrorists attacks and cooperate with the United States in the "war on terror," leading to the removal of the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001. In return, the United States rewarded Iran by designating it a member of the "axis of evil."

As recently as 2011, Iran, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, offered to invite the U.S. representative in Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, to Tehran for talks on cooperation in Afghanistan, welcomed the Russian "step-by-step plan" to resolve the nuclear crisis, offered five years of full supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over Iran's nuclear program, and proposed halting uranium enrichment to 20 percent and instead limiting it to 5 percent, if Iran was provided with fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor. However, the United States and the West responded to all these unprecedented overtures with mounting pressures, sanctioning oil exports and Iran's Central Bank, and advancing U.N. resolutions that condemn Iran on terrorism and human rights.

Recognizing that mistrust is mutual is the first step toward confidence building. A second step is to acknowledge that the international community's "dual track" policy of pressure and diplomacy toward Iran has in fact been mostly a single track of coercion, sanctions, covert war, and isolation -- with no clear, coherent, strategic vision of the kind of relationship the United States can ultimately accept with the Islamic Republic. There has not been a meaningful agenda of specific proposals for practical ways to build confidence through diplomacy.

The third requirement for progress is for the United States to guarantee Iran that if it answers all of the IAEA's outstanding questions, the United States, Israel, and others will not use this information to ratchet up sanctions or other forms of coercion against Iran. The IAEA has frequently confirmed that it has found no evidence of Iran's nuclear materials being diverted for military purposes, but to close the file and end the nuclear crisis a more comprehensive modus vivendi needs to be established with the United States. Therefore bilateral talks between the United States and Iran must grow out of the coming P5+1 negotiations with Iran.

The fourth imperative is to recognize that Iran perceives small "step-by-step" negotiations as a trap. The Iranians have experienced such piecemeal policies for the last three decades with no success and no end to the fundamental conflict with the United States. Iran needs to know the entire game plan, including the end goal, before committing itself to anything. Thus, the next talks between the P5+1 and Iran will fail if the United States and other P5+1 members take a "piecemeal approach," asking Iran for example to reduce uranium enrichment from 20 percent to five percent in exchange for fuel rods. This idea is no longer attractive for Iran, since it has already reached the 20 percent enrichment level and produced fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor.

What's the best way to remove the atmosphere of crisis and to create a more stable basis for addressing Iran's relations with its neighbors and the broader international community? World powers must use negotiations on the nuclear crisis to resolve outstanding issues with the IAEA and allow Iran to exercise its right to enrich uranium while guaranteeing that this will not lead to nuclear weapons. "Commitments against rights" is the win-win formula. Iran would gain recognition of its legitimate right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, the lifting of relevant sanctions, and the normalization of its nuclear file at the United Nations and the IAEA. The P5+1 would gain specific commitments and measures to guarantee that Iran will not make a nuclear weapon, assuring the international community of Tehran's commitment to remain a non-nuclear weapon state.

The current pressures only encourage Iran to be intransigent and a peaceful and reasonable solution to this imminent confrontation is necessary, now. After 30 plus years of mistrust, the stakes are now way too high to risk going about this in a piecemeal fashion.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Out of Africa

An expat witnesses the end of halcyon days in Mali.

On Feb. 14, my husband and I moved to Bamako, Mali, with our 1-year-old. Seven weeks later, the baby and I found ourselves evacuees on a flight back to the United States.

We had been in our new house just south of the Niger River for only four days when, in late March, junior military officers staged an improvised coup d'état, reversing 20 years of elected civilian rule in Mali and plunging the country into chaos. Two weeks after the coup, whose purported intention was to restore Mali's territorial and democratic integrity, an army of separatist rebels declared independence of the northern half of the country -- just as my daughter and I changed planes for Washington.

Back in the halcyon days of February, Mali was one of those African countries you could convincingly assure your grandparents was safe. We used the standard line: Mali is a model of democracy and stability in the region. Sure, there is the "problem of the north" -- the latest in a long series of revolts by Tuareg rebels and the presence of an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cell -- but that's deep in the desert, a thousand miles away from the capital. (Mali is nearly the size of Texas and California put together.) My husband and I were excited to work on projects to strengthen justice and public-sector systems in the country -- he at the U.S. Embassy and I at the Earth Institute, Columbia University's regional center for West and Central Africa. Our daughter would learn French, Bambara (Mali's primary local language), and how best to eat a mango. Thanks to my previous work in Mali and other connections, we had many friends in Bamako.

But I cannot say I was not warned. "Mali is like the Niger," a close friend was fond of saying. "It looks so calm. But below the surface the current can carry you away."

Indeed, beneath that calm surface were signs of trouble. Following the Europeans' lead, USAID was working toward increasing government-to-government support, directly financing the Malian treasury. Yet expats commonly talked about corruption in Mali; a 2010 scandal in which officials at the Malian health ministry embezzled at least $4 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria serves a spectacular case in point. In our most cynical moments we mused that government officials had simply learned to play the aid game and knew what to say and do to keep the money rolling in -- nearly $1 billion in official development aid annually and millions more in mining investments. But the vast majority of Malians barely continued to eke out a living in the dust and sand. Thousands more were unable to do even that, dying in one of the worst food crises on record, brought on by droughts acerbated by climate change.

I think our ardent desire to believe in the symbol of Malian democracy kept us from dealing with deeper issues. The presidential elections originally scheduled to take place later this month were considered "low risk"; President Amadou Toumani Touré -- who resigned following the coup -- was in his last term and was expected to step down when the time came. I was among those who underestimated the crise de confiance -- the terrible lack of trust in politicians and deep concerns about corruption, nepotism, and what many in Mali called the exclusive "mafia" of the political class.

On the day the coup began, March 21, my daughter, her nanny, and I were in the labyrinth of our outdoor neighborhood market when my husband called to say there had been some trouble in the military town of Kati, just outside the capital and that, just to be safe, we should avoid going downtown. It was not news that the soldiers were livid at the perceived lack of government support to fend off the Tuareg rebellion, so back in the market the three of us took our time finding just the right colored buckets and other items for settling into our new house. Thirty minutes after returning home we learned that a mob had blocked a nearby bridge. My husband called back: Soldiers had overrun the national television and radio station, and now something funny was going on up on the colline du pouvoir -- the "hill of power" where the presidential palace and several other government buildings look down on the city.

When he was finally able to return home late that night, my husband had a perfect view from our roof of the gun battle up on the hill. I stayed glued to Malian national television. After hours of eerie dance music videos behind the message "In a moment, a declaration from the soldiers," a dozen men in various military uniforms, some holding guns, appeared and explained that they were now in control of the country. They looked to be straight out of Binyavanga Wainaina's classic essay "How to Write about Africa."

We went on home-based lockdown the next day as soldiers continued to fire in the air around our neighborhood. The baby was oblivious to the gunfire as I read her a bedtime story. But in that intimate moment, questions of coups and governance ceased to be an academic and programmatic problem. Instead, we worried about staying away from windows and stocking provisions.

It took me a few days to realize that the reactions of everyday Malians to the coup were more complicated than the blanket condemnations on Twitter from both Malians and the international community. When I began listening more closely to what my neighbors were actually saying, I got a glimpse of the undercurrents. People largely shared the junta's grievances: Touré had left the Malian army woefully unprepared to fight the rebellion. And while politicians benefited from resource exploitation and drug-running, schools and health clinics barely functioned. Our neighbors saw democracy in Mali -- in terms of accountability and the expression of the people's will -- as a charade; to them, the junta's intent to "restore democracy" by ousting the elected president was not ironic. Yet most people were uncomfortable with the junta's approach; some referred to them as "children with guns," and everyone worried about what would happen next.

As with all good juntas, Mali's said it would stay only long enough to fix things and hold elections. But under what increasingly felt like house arrest, I watched online from my dining room table as the situation rapidly went further south, literally. In just over a week the Malian army had retreated from the biggest three northern towns, including Timbuktu. It was unclear who was in control. Tuareg independence rebels were fighting side-by-side with Islamists seeking to impose sharia law on all of Mali (something quite incongruous with Malian tolerance), and no one quite knew what al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was up to or where the shadowy group might strike next.

Meanwhile, the junta dug in its heels. Severe regional sanctions loomed as I alternated between packing our family's "go bag" and planning my garden.

On April 2, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed a "total embargo" on Mali to try to force the junta to give up power. I became keenly aware of just how hot it was outside: 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and getting hotter. We found a source of local milk in the neighborhood, and I made my own yogurt. Our daughter, spending most of her time with the kids across our dirt road, started saying "ayi" -- "no" in Bambara. Then my job left in an 11-car caravan moving west: Like many other NGO offices, the regional anti-poverty center relocated to another country.

When the U.S. Embassy authorized voluntary departure for "non-emergency" Americans, we were torn. Expat friends had been leaving in droves but Bamako still felt normal despite the sanctions, and we figured the junta might still agree to a transition deal. We had worked hard to get to Mali and it made little sense to leave when the country needed its friends the most. Finally, we were told that expat families with children should leave while it was still possible. Our nanny and I fought back tears as we decided which toys would go and which would stay with my husband, awaiting our intended return. Our rushed goodbye in the sweaty chaos of the Bamako airport -- me struggling with baby and bags down the stairs to the tarmac -- was as wrenching as they make it out to be in the movies.

What not to listen to on an evacuation flight out of Bamako: Amadou et Mariam's "Welcome to Mali."  When my daughter finally fell asleep, I put their classic "Ce n'est pas bon" on loop because I wanted to feel just that raw. "Hypocrisy... corruption... dictatorship in politics -- it's not good," the Malian duo sings. "Happiness and love for the people."

It is very hard to know what will happen next. An initial political solution and the lifting of the ECOWAS sanctions -- obtained this week when the junta agreed to cede the interim presidency to the head of the National Assembly, per the Malian constitution -- is just the beginning. The junta leaders remain key players, yet the formidable questions of forming a consensus government, organizing elections, and addressing the secession of the north, greatly complicated by the advances of the radical Ansar Dine and AQIM terrorist groups, remain unresolved. Already hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the food crisis and conflict, and much greater violence is possible. Even if Bamako remains calm, it may take quite a while for embassies and international NGOs to deem it safe enough to restart operations and invite the return of all expats, including babies. 

It was a sparkling day in Washington when my daughter and I landed, just in time to catch the last cherry blossoms. I was instantly reminded of how easy it is in America to forget about what is happening so far away. This time, however, it is home I have left behind. And the question of finding long-term resolutions to the intertwined complexities of politics, famine, terrorism, human rights, and war has become very personal.


-/AFP/Getty Images