Missed Opportunities Thwart Progress on U.S.-Iran Relations

Highlights from the Iran panel with (L to R) Suzanne DiMaggio, Alireza Nader, Gary Sick, and Kevan Harris at Asia Society New York on Feb. 10, 2011. (7 min., 15 sec.)
Highlights from the Iran panel with (L to R) Suzanne DiMaggio, Alireza Nader, Gary Sick, and Kevan Harris at Asia Society New York on Feb. 10, 2011. (7 min., 15 sec.)

NEW YORK, February 10, 2011 – President Barack Obama's administration missed "huge opportunities" to advance U.S.-Iran relations since coming to office, said Gary Sick, a former member of the National Security Council who served under U.S. Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, during a panel featuring prominent experts on Iran and U.S.-Iran relations convened here by the Asia Society.

"There were ways of dealing with a whole set of issues which were either not taken or were looked at and dropped along the way," Sick asserted, referring in particular to a nuclear deal with Iran brokered by Brazil and Turkey in May 2010. The deal, which would have swapped some of Iran's enriched uranium for fuel to power a Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes, was rejected by the United States and other Western nations because it allowed Iran to continue producing enriched uranium.

Sick contended that the Obama administration should accept the reality of a nuclear Iran and use it as a point of departure for future negotiations. He added that the United States should not "insist that all of the nuclear issues have to be resolved before you can talk about Afghanistan or Iraq or drugs."

The panel, which was moderated by Suzanne DiMaggio, Vice President of Global Policy Programs at the Asia Society, also served as the New York launch of The Iran Primer: Power, Politics, and U.S. Policy, a collection of written analyses by 50 top Western and Iranian experts examining Iran's politics, economy, military, and foreign policy published by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Robin Wright, editor of The Iran Primer and a former Washington Post diplomatic correspondent who has covered Iran and the Middle East since 1973, joined the panel by videoconference. (All of the evening's participants contributed chapters to the Primer.)

Alireza Nader, an international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, spoke about the Iranian military and addressed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertion that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps may be supplanting the government, creating a military dictatorship in Iran. "[The Revolutionary Guards] is not Iran's premiere decision-maker," Nader noted. "The real decision-maker is still the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei but the two have formed a symbiotic relationship."

Nader cautioned, however, that the Guards' willingness to act without Ayatollah Khamenei's approval, its strong ties to the economy, and its growing disregard for the people's voice could contribute to a shift in its role from military to governance.

Thirsty Fish blogger Kevan Harris, who recently spent a year in Iran researching the Iranian economy, discussed how sanctions have impacted ordinary life in Iran. He noted that while sanctions might have taken a few points off of the country's gross domestic product and have been celebrated as victories within Western policy circles, they remain tactics without a clear "end game."

"Small and medium enterprises which employ five to seven people are hurt because big companies get hit by sanctions," Harris argued. "It all trickles down. U.S. government officials cannot say with a straight face that we are only targeting the government or that sanctions are not supposed to hurt the people."

The Iran Primer: Power, Politics, and U.S. Policy can be purchased at AsiaStore.com.