The panel discussion "The International Community and Iran" took place at the 60th annual conference in November, 2006.
The International Community and Iran
November 13, 2006
Hooshang Amirahmadi, Trita Parsi, Barbara Slavin, John Limbert
In the panel "Iran and the International Community" speakers Hooshang Amirahmadi, Trita Parsi, and Barbara Slavin, discussed measures for improving relations between Iran and the United States. Most attributed the breakdown in diplomatic ties to US unwillingness to engage in private talks with Iran, leading the regime to befriend China and Russia. Meanwhile, Washington's demands on Tehran, namely abandonment of Iran's nuclear program and regime change, have exacerbated tensions between the two countries.
Moderator John Limbert opened the panel discussion by briefly summarizing Iran’s regional position since the mid-1970s. He characterized the years preceding the 1979 revolution as peaceful and described Iran as a state that possessed considerable regional and international friends. The events of 1979, however, changed this state of affairs; Iran found itself without allies and the Iranian people became “masters of their own house.” Limbert posed the question: what relationship should this house now have with the international community?
The first speaker, Hooshang Amirahmadi affirmed Limbert’s characterization of pre-1979 Iran, adding that the period following the revolution consisted of a series of crises which imposed serious economic and strategic costs upon the state. Iran’s political legitimacy eroded and the country also developed a deep distrust of the international community. While cronyism and regional crises have contributed to the breakdown in Iran’s relations with the international community, Amirahmadi argued that the downward spiraling conflict between Iran and the US has made negotiable grievances appear non-negotiable.
Meanwhile, priorities within the Iranian government have shifted away from normalizing relations with the US towards improving links with Islamic nations. According to Amirahmadi, Iran is only concerned with maintaining a relationship of détente with the US. Since 1979, Iran has befriended China, India, and Russia, and prioritized these relationships over those with either the European Union or the US. Amirahmadi concluded that Iran has replaced Arab countries in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the greatest instigator. The new fault line thus centers on the evolving nature of Iranian-Israeli relations. To prevent future conflict with Israel’s strongest ally, the US, Amirahmadi proposed spiral cooperation.
Barbara Slavin tackled the panel question by focusing on George W. Bush’s diplomacy towards Iran. She claimed that a possibility for a breakthrough in relations had been missed between September 11th and May of 2003. Iran had actively supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and tacitly supported American efforts in Iraq. When negotiations between the states were publicized in mid-2003, however, the dialogue ended. From that point on, the US outsourced Iran to England, France, and Germany, which isolated the US from any sort of dialogue.
Recognizing this problem, the US re-established negotiations with Iran by offering both to open membership to the WTO and supply the state with spare military parts. According to Slavin, the conditionality of this agreement undermined these gestures. Specifically, these concessions were predicated on Iran suspending enrichment and pursuing regime change. Slavin thus wondered whether the US had done too little too late. She concluded that individuals in both governments are eager to talk, if there are those who are willing to listen.
Trita Parsi’s speech focused on Iran’s emerging relations with China and Russia. He emphasized Iran’s power within the region, which he attributed to its oil revenues, the elimination of Saddam Husseyn and the Taliban as a regional threat and the lack of dependence on the US. Because of this particular position, Parsi argued that Iran cannot afford to not have a global ally. According to Parsi, US-imposed sanctions have pushed Iran into the orbit of China and Russia. Unlike its relations with Iran, the US approach to China is predicated on the belief that containment would only transform an ally into a foe. In order to combat China’s objectionable policies, the US advocated integration into the global community. According to Parsi, Iran is the China of the Middle East and the only way to improve relations is to integrate Iran in a similar fashion. Moreover, Parsi argued that the US should take the lead in creating a regional security architecture that will include Iran.
During the question and answer period, Amirahmadi contended that both sides must simultaneously announce their interest in normalizing relations. He also argued that if the US chose to strike Iran, it would do so comprehensively—hard to image given the recent Congressional elections—and not surgically. Slavin called for the US to end sanctions and advocated clever regime change with private talks. Parsi emphasized that Iranians favored uranium enrichment only for peaceful purposes and that a nuclear weaponization program was against the country’s own interests as it would create a regional weaponization race.
About this Event
Hooshang Amirahmadi, Trita Parsi, Barbara Slavin, and John Limbert offered these remarks at the Middle East Institute's 60th Anniversary Annual Conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on November 14th, 2006.
This event summary was prepared by Ashley Goodrich-Mahoney, a recent M.St graduate of the University of Oxford and a current intern in the publications department. She received an A.B. in Political Science from Brown University. Kathryn Wilson edited this summary. She is a recent graduate of Amherst College where she pursued a B.A. in History.