A HELSINKI PROCESS FOR IRAN?
Diplomacy Is Not Dead - It Needs a Creative Jolt
December 2, 2009
Diplomacy with Iran is not going well. Tehran has de facto rejected the once-promising idea of sending its uranium abroad for peaceful processing. The IAEA censured Iran last week; Tehran responded by announcing a provocative and outlandish plan to build ten new nuclear enrichment facilities. The French foreign minister has described Iran’s behavior as “childish.” Dire and resigned warnings of sanctions are on the rise and a debate may be emerging in Iran about withdrawal from the NPT. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime’s gratuitous injustice toward political opponents – both real and perceived – detracts each day from the moral palatability of negotiations. It’s time to throw in the towel on diplomacy, resort to good old sanctions, and call it a day – right?
Let’s face it – sanctions may make us feel like we are doing something, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that sanctions or even an attack on the current Iranian government will resolve the nuclear issue (and other issues) for all time. If Iran really wants nuclear weapons or simply a breakout capability, economic and military coercion will probably only slow it down – not stop it. The US must lead the world in crafting a more creative approach and a longer-term vision. This approach must eschew short-term paranoia and alarmism and accept some level of risk of an Iranian nuclear capability. Though it is taboo to say so, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not ordain the end of the world. To paraphrase the famous constructivist international relations theorist Alexander Wendt, an Iranian nuclear capability would be what the relevant parties decided to make of it.
A threat depends not only on material capabilities, but on the intentions behind those capabilities. The US and its international partners should thus ease the myopic fixation on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and address Iranian intentions. They should ask: Why might Iran currently intend to secretly pursue a nuclear weapons-capability? If Iran acquires a breakout capability or even a full-fledged Bomb, how might this be made less threatening? The US likely has the power to shape the answers to these questions. In other words, the US can affect Iran’s intentions regarding nuclear weapons.
It would of course be best if Iran did not acquire any nuclear weapons capability. The US should continue efforts to restrict Iran’s ability to weaponize through targeted “smart sanctions” and monitoring. Sanctions are not completely useless – they’re just insufficient. A complementary goal of a new approach should be to reassure Iran on political and security issues such that they do not rush to acquire the Bomb. Meanwhile, US strategy should take account of Iran’s Green Movement and create avenues to effectuate change inside of Iran that favors a longer-term, more natural and evolutionary rapprochement. This approach is premised on the belief that the best hope for a lasting resolution of the Iran nuclear issue is neither short-term confrontation nor a rapid, narrow, and superficial settlement with the current Iranian government. Action that helps foster an evolution in the nature of Iran’s governance may aid in positively affecting Iran’s long-term intentions. No – this is not a veiled call for regime change (see previous analysis Evolution, Not Revolution). The objective of US strategy should be to foster a positive evolution in both Iran’s foreign relations and its internal situation that, taken together, naturally reduces the threat and significance of any Iranian nuclear capability.
How could such a new approach toward Iran be structured? Cold War Europe provides a compelling idea. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) convened in 1972, launching a three year process of negotiation that culminated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. The Helsinki Process, as it is called, brought together the US and its nuclear-armed, human rights-violating arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union, alongside thirty-three other countries to craft a political agreement meant to enhance security and cooperation in Europe. The Soviets came willingly, believing that the process would affirm Soviet legitimacy and control of Eastern Europe. The Helsinki Process addressed much more than the Soviets’ geopolitical position, however. It proceeded along three negotiating tracks, or “baskets” of issues: political-military, economic, and humanitarian. Basket One covered disarmament and military confidence-building measures. Basket Two addressed economic cooperation. Basket Three called for protection of human rights such as the free movement of people, freedom of information, and freedom of the press. The “Human Dimension” of the Final Act, including elements of the humanitarian basket and Declaration of Principles, proved a legitimizing force for anti-communist dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. The Helsinki Process institutionalized criticism of human rights violations in the Soviet sphere and contributed to the major changes that unfolded there toward the end of the Cold War.
Could something like the Helsinki Process help the United States achieve its objectives with respect to Iran? Before trying to answer the question, let us summarize the major prevailing circumstances that confound and complicate US policy. The US is threatened by and opposes an Iranian nuclear military capability. It is similarly concerned about human rights in Iran. The US hopes to use economic pressure to realize progress in these areas. Unfortunately, Iran appears impervious to economic pressure and insists that improved relations require the US to respect Iran’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and central role in regional matters. Its government is paranoid about foreign attack and/or interference in its internal affairs. The situation is complicated by other actors with a stake in US-Iran relations. At least a segment of Iran’s opposition seeks more vocal American support that stops short of harming their cause; they apparently fear that democracy in Iran could be sacrificed on the altar of US-Iran rapprochement. Arab states in the region share a similar fear of having their interests sold out; many fear a more powerful Iran but do not wish to antagonize it by explicitly opposing it. Then there is Israel, which appears willing to exercise the military option to prevent Iran – which denies Israel’s right to exist – from acquiring the Bomb.
A broader negotiating process based on the Helsinki model may succeed in making sense of this mess of factors and lead, in due time, to lasting progress on both the nuclear and human rights issues in Iran. As noted in previous editorials (Is Iran Angling for a Grand Bargain? and Nuclear Focus May Doom Talks), Iran seeks security from foreign attack and a prominent regional role. It also seeks an ego-boosting affirmation that the US and other powers view Iran as a legitimate and equal power. A challenge for the West is to indulge these Iranian desires without compromising certain interests and values – an especially salient problem in light of this summer’s stolen election and brutal crackdown. An adoption of the CSCE Declaration of Principles as a basis for a new negotiating framework may serve both sides’ purposes. The ten principles are as follows:
I. Sovereign equality and respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty
II. Refraining from threat or use of force
III. Inviolability of frontiers
IV. Territorial integrity of states
V. Peaceful settlement of disputes
VI. Non-intervention in internal affairs
VII. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief
VIII. Equal rights and self-determination of peoples
IX. Cooperation among states
X. Fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law
As in the Helsinki Process, these principles (or some variation; “freedom of assembly and expression” should be added to Principle VII) could serve as the foundation for three separate negotiating tracks: military-security, economic, and humanitarian. Iran’s nuclear program and issues of regional military security and transparency would be addressed along the first, military-security track. The US and international community would continue to press Iran for nuclear transparency while signaling benign military intentions and integrate Iran into discussions of regional security. Assurances provided in principles two through six of the Declaration should provide Iran with many of the political-military assurances that it seeks and decrease the incentive to rush to develop a nuclear weapon. Acceptance by Tehran of principle ten would reaffirm its existing obligations under the NPT. This track could incorporate negotiators from Arab states who have security concerns about Iran. Including Israel would likely be politically impossible (at least at first), yet this military-security track could still serve as a forum to shape stronger, more inclusive and coherent regional security arrangements.
Economic issues could be treated along a second, parallel negotiating track. Though Iranian officials downplay their effects, removal of existing economic sanctions is high on Tehran’s wish list. In order to further defuse tension over geopolitical and security issues, the US and its partners should emphasize structural economic reforms as an alternative route for Tehran to win sanctions relief. In fact, the argument can be made that structural adjustment should be the primary requirement for sanctions relief. Without it, sanctions relief would mainly benefit the oppressive political elites who now dominate Iran’s economy.
Privatization of key industries would take them out of elite clerical and military hands and transfer power to actors likely to favor more pacific foreign policies; it would strengthen Iranian civil society and help create new and significant political actors in Iran. It would of course not be easy to convince the clerics and Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to surrender their privileged economic position. Fierce debate would certainly rage inside Tehran’s halls of power before any such major economic restructuring. But if the payoff involved Western concessions and assurances along the military-security track, the approach might work. The IRGC is, after all, foremost a military organization – not a profit-seeking corporation. It may even gain resources through taxation of foreign direct investment and more efficient domestic industries. Those in the IRGC who aspire to rule the country as a junta and via patronage are sure to scoff at any such restructuring. Yet to know for sure, we must first present the IRGC with the choice.
Structural adjustment of the Iranian economy could thus positively affect Iran’s intentions in two main ways. First, it would increase the size and distribution of the economic opportunity cost to Iran of conflict. Second, it would create new domestic political actors with an interest in balancing against more ideologically-disposed, anti-Western forces.
A third negotiating track that pays explicit attention to human rights may also pacify the long-term intentions of the Iranian state by helping bring to power a new generation of more progressive Iranian leaders. While providing benefits to Iran along the economic and military-security tracks, the US and the international community should pressure Iran to expand political participation, reduce censorship, and ensure due process and free and fair elections. It is not in American interests to ignore or sell out the Green Movement while tilting at nuclear windmills. Yet a balance must be struck and a nuanced posture achieved; the US cannot appear to explicitly favor one political party or program over another. Instead, the focus must be on bringing the Iranian system up to internationally-acceptable standards. The Helsinki Process established monitoring groups in the Soviet bloc to report on human rights transgressions. The US and international community should attempt to negotiate similar arrangements with Iran; Iran should be asked to allow foreign NGOs to function without harassment within its borders and open itself to election monitoring. It seems implausible that Iran would accept such “interference” under current circumstances, but it may be more cooperative in a broader context that includes military and economic incentives. At the very least, this third track would keep the spotlight on the current Iranian government’s transgressions and buttress the political will of the Green Movement and others in Iran who seek to overcome the paranoid and immoral excesses of today’s leaders. As explained in Evolution, Not Revolution, political and demographic trends in Iran favor an evolution over the course of a generation that should result in an Iran with less hostile intentions toward outsiders – and especially toward the United States. Track Three of the proposed negotiating framework, if properly calibrated, could serve as a midwife to the slow birth of a friendlier Iran.
There are of course arguments against the approach just presented. It is naïve. It underestimates the nuclear danger. It surrenders too much for the faint promise of an uncertain future. Regardless of its geopolitical interests, Iran will never bring itself to make peace with the US – its ideology won’t allow it. Moreover, the clerics and Guards will never give up their privileged economic position. Iran’s paranoid regime will see any calls for structural adjustment or scrutiny of human rights abuses as interference and evidence of nefarious Western designs. Iran will ratchet up its rhetoric and hostility accordingly, leading us belatedly to the inevitable realization that coercion is our only option.
Most such criticisms are, to this author, short-sighted and excessively cynical. Yet they merit careful consideration should a strategy such as this win the attention of policymakers. The proposals here are offered soberly and with cautious and patient optimism. Even if the Helsinki model is not the right one, the United States must still find a way to re-frame its interactions with Iran. It needs to address Iranian intentions as well as capabilities. The current approach is conventional, myopic, and flawed. More creative thinking in Washington and other capitals is required if we are to see a genuine and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma.