Iran and U.S. Policy: Past, Present, and Future
A Public Address by former US Ambassador Thomas Pickering
February 3, 2012
Author: Charles Hobbs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The Future of Diplomacy Project
“I think we have a very large reason to remain concerned about the Iranian nuclear program,” Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering warned students in a recent address at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for International Affairs and Science. A career diplomat, Pickering served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and in critical ambassadorial assignments in Russia, India, Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, and at the UN. Pickering addressed an over-capacity auditorium to discuss the past, present, and future of Iran’s nuclear program at a February 2, 2012 public address for the Future of Diplomacy Project.
Pickering laid out the long history of the United States’ entanglement with the Iranian nuclear program. The American diplomatic effort, he said, had historically been slow to recognize the looming Iranian threat. “This has been in a sense the watchword on American policy in Iran: we are ready to do a year late what we should have done a year ago.”
The current American approach makes use of a dual track policy: putting pressure on Iranian decision-makers through sanctions, while offering the chance for negotiations. Even so, Pickering expressed doubt in the US short-term commitment to finding a resolution. “I suspect that domestic interests here play a role…it can escape no one’s notice that it is an election year.” The US is not seeking war, he clarified; quite the opposite. “America has a serious interest in avoiding war by accident or miscalculation…or by Israel or anybody else.”
Finding a resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis will be a long and arduous process. Some of US policy, he said, seems to hope that sanctions “will be able to produce a situation in which the answer will automatically drop in our laps like plum from a tree.” Instead, Pickering argued that policymakers will need to be flexible and creative. Perhaps the most significant problem confronting negotiators is that both sides are in a position of mutual mistrust. The complete lack of bilateral communication wasn’t helping. “My own thinking,” said Pickering, “is that it is probably so bad that some kind of trusted intermediary—if that can be found—is really essential to beginning the process.”
Even if, however, an effective diplomatic dialogue could begin, significant hurdles would remain. Perhaps the most problematic, said Pickering, is America’s demand that zero enrichment was the only acceptable end. “I think that this is a mission impossible issue. The greatest need that we on the outside have is a thorough, active, [..] intrusive inspection system, which will keep us up to date with what is happening in Iran.” In order to encourage the Iranians to accept such a proposal, Pickering suggested that an eventual negotiating team should consider allowing the Iranians to continue uranium enrichment at 3.5% (rather than at the current 20% level) with full inspection by the IAEA.
All of these possible steps, Pickering warned, would just be the beginning of a process that would hopefully one day look to reintegrate Iran into the mainstream global community. But even with the uncertainties of an election year, the former Ambassador argued that swift action is needed. “We have a set of issues where accident and miscalculation become increasingly possible. We all know about the pressure cooker…if you sit on the valve, you cause an explosion.”
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