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Diplomatic impunity: Why the US should reach out to Iran

The inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani is a missed opportunity for US-Iran relations.

Last Modified: 05 Aug 2013 14:06
Tara Maller

Tara Maller is a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a former CIA military analyst. She holds a PhD in political science from MIT.
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described the US as the world's "sheriff" and only through direct negotiations can there be a resolution to the nuclear standoff [AP]

With the birth of Prince George in London and the slow death of Anthony Weiner's campaign in New York, the world's invite to the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani - one of Tehran's most high profile events of the year - went fairly unnoticed, as did the rescinded inaugural invites that followed just days later. In a moment of pre-inaugural confusion, the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Araghchi invited world leaders to the August 4 inauguration of Iran's next president. However, just a few days later, Iran's Foreign Ministry clarified that no RSVP would be required from the United States and Israel since they were not invited.

Israel's foreign ministry spokesperson, Paul Hirschson, assured the international community that they weren't offended. "We're not taking it personally," Hirschson said, flippantly overlooking what might have been a rare diplomatic opportunity. While the British were deemed acceptable for inclusion on the invite list despite no embassy presence in Iran and strained diplomatic relations, they will not be sending over a British official. Douglas Alexander, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, has criticised the British decision not to attend the inauguration, even though they were invited. He noted that declining the invite "represents both a misjudgment and a missed opportunity". Opening the door to diplomacy can play a real and concrete impact.

Rouhani faces major challenges

Even if the United States were included at the inauguration, it is unlikely that it would have responded by sending a high level official to Iran to the event. This type of diplomatic resistance needs to be overcome if the US and Iran truly desire to work together to make progress on serious foreign policy issues in the region, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and resolve differences in the realm of nuclear negotiations.

The lack of official diplomatic channels between the US and Iran, along with the lack of an embassy in Tehran, means that the United States is not only inhibiting its diplomatic ability to work with the Iranians, but it is limiting its ability to put pressure on the regime, monitor on-the-ground dynamics, gauge the population's sentiments, and directly observe the impact of sanctions.

In my research I looked at more than 100 episodes in which the US imposed sanctions on other countries. I found that diplomatic engagement makes sanctions more effective, whereas disengagement has the reverse effect. When the US closes its embassy in a targeted country, for instance, the probability that sanctions will fail increases to 73 percent from 42 percent. When controlling for other variables, simply increasing the economic costs imposed on the target state did not lead to compliance with demands. Engagement improves the ability to convey demands, target the correct entities, monitor the impact of sanctions on the ground, and calibrate policies over time. Diplomacy can also provide a window into the regime's decision-making processes, motives and vulnerabilities. Increased diplomatic interaction also helps clarify the nature of the demands on a sanctioned country and resolve ambiguity or misperceptions that exist.

In a study conducted in 2011 that examines 900 sanctions episodes over three decades, findings illustrated that specific demands had a success rate of 53 percent, whereas only 18 percent of ambiguous demands were met. These findings suggest that strong parallel diplomatic efforts have the ability to directly strengthen punitive economic measures by helping to clarify the nature of demands and foster cooperation between both sides.

Unfortunately, when mutual suspicions and hostilities are present, leaders tend to resist diplomatic outreach. Critics of diplomatic engagement with states like Iran and North Korea sometimes invoke the "Munich analogy" - referencing to the deal struck by Great Britain, France and Italy with Adolf Hitler in September 1938, permitting Germany to annex western Czechoslovakia - and argue that engaging enemies is tantamount to appeasement, particularly if the enemy is the one asking for or demanding the talks in the first place. However, such an analogy is misguided since diplomacy and appeasement are not the same thing. In fact, diplomacy can also be used in conjunction with ramping up pressure on a regime and more forcefully articulating and clarifying demands.

Inside Story - Rouhani: A new era for Iran?

Political leaders may also worry about appearing weak to domestic or international audiences if they make diplomatic overtures or express a willingness to negotiate with certain actors or states. These concerns can be even more salient if they are thinking about reversing from a strong and public position of non-engagement towards one of engagement. In other words, Iranian and US leaders may worry that their previous strategies will be perceived as failures if they modify their positions, and they may also fear losing credibility with certain segments of the population at home.

While the inauguration may represent a missed opportunity, the United States can still seize the moment with diplomatic overtures of its own - both real and symbolic. Just last week, in what seems to be a gesture of good will, the US Treasury Department already eased restrictions on some humanitarian aid and medical supplies entering Iran. In a recent and compelling piece about US policy towards Iran in the New York Review of Books by William LuersThomas R Pickering, and Jim Walsh, the authors propose the United States initiate some of its own invitation diplomacy. They encourage the United States to express its openness to a meeting in the next few months between President Obama and President Rouhani and that President Obama send a private letter or congratulatory message to the new Iranian president following the inauguration.

There are serious and real differences between the US and Iran that will need to be worked out in the context of negotiations addressing the nuclear issue. However, the inauguration provides a window of opportunity for both countries to start taking symbolic diplomatic steps in the right direction.

Tara Maller is a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a former CIA military analyst. She holds a PhD in political science from MIT.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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