Iran and the West: Lessons from Afghanistan?

Former United States ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the current dean at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M, Ryan Crocker had a widely read and circulated Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times where he called for President Obama to “talk to Iran” because, based on his extensive experience, “it works”. The article is definitely worth reading because Crocker is one of the few Americans since 1979 who has talked with the Iranian government directly — and with results to show for it.

Based on his success during the negotiations with the Iranians prior to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Crocker offers “four lessons from the 2001 talks” that, he believes, “the Obama administration can replicate”:

  1. No intermediaries — talks should be directly between representatives from both nations.
  2. Confidentiality is paramount — no content of any of the discussions should be revealed publicly.
  3. It can’t only be about the nuclear issue — the United States, in particular, must be open to discussing other pertinent issues, independent of the nuclear one.
  4. No regime change — the United States must state, unequivocally and upfront, that it is not seeking to overthrow the current government.
I agree with Crocker’s four points, and especially his emphasis on lesson number two regarding secrecy. However, where I think his application of the Afghanistan negotiations from 2001 to the present situation falls short is that, back then, Iran had little to lose by cooperating with the United States.

Yes, the Taliban were common enemies to both the United States and Iran. But however much a nuisance they were to the Iranians, they were not a significant threat to the stability of the regime or the country’s national security. At most, the Taliban represented an ideological and regional rival — without the material resources of other Sunni states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey), the Afghan’s impact on the Iranians were limited to cross-border incursions and fomenting unrest amongst the tribal communities in Iran’s southeast provinces. Important stuff, for sure, but nothing that immediately threatens the regime’s survival.

In partnering with the United States to cripple the Taliban, what did the Iranians have to give up? What nationalistic, ideological, or “revolutionary” principles had to be compromised to dialogue with the United States? The barrier to entry was low, the costs, minimal, and the potential gains relatively significant. That is why it worked it 2001.

Today, the stakes are far different, and higher: Iran is being asked to give up its “inalienable right to nuclear enrichment”, not to mention all of the political capital and prestige that Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard have invested in the nuclear project. To cooperate with the Americans in ridding the area of the Taliban — that is a deal that the regime can sell to its ideological base. But to give up their nuclear right in an act of capitulation to the more powerful Western powers, in exchange for relief on sanctions that they see as having been unfair to begin with? How is that a deal?

This is what makes these recent rounds of negotiations in Geneva particularly challenging. Yes, there is much we can learn from past efforts — and successes — at cooperation. But we would be fooling ourselves if we think these lessons apply equally and evenly to the current context.