Negotiation not strikes needed for Iran

by Lynn Kunkle and Lisa Schirch
08 July 2008
Washington, DC - As concerns persist that Israel or the United States could attack Iran, the realistic outcomes of such an event must be considered. An American military attack, rather than making the world more secure, could instead provide Iran with greater incentive to harm US interests and allies throughout the region. Principled negotiation, an interest-based approach to problem solving, could provide an alternative to coercive diplomacy to help resolve the current impasse.

A US strike would give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the pretext to move against Iranian reformers and civil society groups critical of the regime, silencing both dissident and pro-engagement voices. Iranian public opinion polls show that the Iranian people would rally around their president if attacked, leading some civil society leaders to warn that a foreign strike could set their reform efforts back decades.

Even "pinprick" surgical strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities could trigger a massive blowback against US interests and personnel in the region. The exposure of US interests to unpredictable and asymmetrical regional forces aligned to Iran would be nearly impossible to control. Some have estimated that the escalating rhetoric between the United States and Iran alone has pushed up the price of oil by $50 per barrel.

Nor is a military strike in Iran likely to achieve the stated US goal of preventing the country's nuclear enrichment programme. As international criticism against US policy grows, chief UN nuclear inspector Mohammed al-Baradei recently asserted that an attacked Iran would have grounds to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Precipitous US action could therefore end up creating the very outcome it seeks to avoid.

Direct, open-ended, comprehensive, and bilateral talks with Iran still promise the best payoff for US interests in regional stability, secure oil resources and the promotion of democracy. Principled negotiation with Iran lays the groundwork for addressing the root causes of conflict between the two countries from both perspectives.

For the United States, underlying sources of conflict with Iran are tied to fears over nuclear weapons capability and the country's support for regional actors using violent means to achieve their aims. Regional stability and human rights issues are also concerns.

For Iran, the concerns include the need for secure and reliable energy development; international and regional recognition; respect for sovereign rights, regime security and regional stability and a perceived US bias toward Israel. Developing ways to acknowledge these interests would pave the way for more substantial diplomatic successes supporting US interests.

Principled negotiation with Iran could help the United States promote stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon by highlighting common ground on shared security issues. Iran has a long-term interest in stable, democratic neighbours. The scant evidence of Iranian support and training for Iraqi Shi'a groups suggests considerable Iranian restraint, given its porous 1,000-mile border and close religious kinship.

Iran, historically a pragmatic regional power, can play a productive role in countries in the region where the US has significant interests. Tehran has long opposed al Qaeda and the Taliban, supported Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan, taken the lead in poppy eradication, and even mediated among Iraqi Shi'a militias, helping to account for some of the successes of the recent US "surge". Iran has also stated its willingness to negotiate its support for Hamas and Hizbullah.

The current strategy of only agreeing to talk with preconditions on those issues Iran has stated its willingness to negotiate prolongs the coercive posturing, leaving only sporadic, hesitant and easily derailed back-channel diplomacy to address issues of major regional significance. Senator Arlen Specter characterised this approach as "27 years of silence broken only by a few whispers," which "has not worked and has left us in the dangerous predicament in which we find ourselves today."

More investment is needed in public, back-channel, and citizen diplomatic engagement with Iran to build much-needed relationships, trust and cross-cultural understanding. Search for Common Ground, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Fellowship for Reconciliation are good examples of organisations that regularly exchange delegations between Iran and the United States.

It will take political courage to employ respectful, principled negotiation and diplomacy with Iran. But bold diplomatic initiatives and principled neutrality in sovereign affairs are proud traditions of American foreign policy.

If the United States resorts to military attacks on Iran, it certainly will not be able to claim this path as a "last resort" until it has first exhausted all possible diplomatic methods as a "first resort."


* Lisa Schirch and Lynn Kunkle work together at the 3D Security Initiative (, which promotes conflict prevention and peace building in US public and foreign policy. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 8 July 2008,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"It is not often that we can find a resource that provides balance and fosters Mideast reconciliation, understanding and coexistence. The Common Ground News Service provides all these consistently. Above all, this service provides the most intangible yet most essential of elements, hope for a better future for all the people of the Middle East."

- Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

10 years after Soeharto
A US leadership to follow
The Qur'an as therapy: an interview with Ofer Grosbard
Who speaks for European Muslims?
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this edition

10 years after Soeharto by Ali Noer Zaman
A US leadership to follow by Salman Shaikh
The Qur'an as therapy: an interview with Ofer Grosbard by Hisham Adem
Who speaks for European Muslims? by H. A. Hellyer