By Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. Jim McDermott
WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 7, 2013) — The unexpected victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s recent presidential election presents the United States its best opportunity in years to reset America’s relationship with the country.
Reinvigorated diplomatic engagement remains the best option to achieve two goals that are critical for U.S. interests in the Middle East: preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and preventing a military strike against the country that could escalate to a wider war.
There are several reasons for cautious optimism about Rouhani’s election. First, he is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s outgoing president. Instead of railing against the United States and threatening neighboring countries, Rouhani campaigned on a platform to improve relations with the West. He pledged to “pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace” and “constructive interaction with the world.” He even criticized the “extremism” of Ahmadinejad’s government and pledged to work toward the release of political prisoners, including the leaders of the opposition Green Movement.
A former nuclear negotiator, Rouhani previously agreed to suspend enrichment activities and implement additional nuclear safeguards urged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. “Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things,” he said during the campaign, referring to the United States. “We believe that that the nuclear issue will be solved only through talks, not sanctions and threats.”
Rouhani’s election provides a welcome opportunity to recalibrate U.S. policy toward Iran. A growing chorus of bipartisan U.S. national security officials, including former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, believes the United States must balance its current sanctions with greater diplomatic engagement.
It would be a mistake to impose new sanctions on Iran before giving Rouhani the chance to put his words into action. Additional sanctions now would offend the majority of voters who chose moderation over extremism and could jeopardize a crucial opening for moderate Iranian leaders. The message to them would be that no matter what you do, the United States will respond only with more crippling pressure. If that is the idea conveyed, Tehran would have little incentive to come to the negotiating table and more reason to advance its nuclear program.
The United States should take three steps to demonstrate that it takes diplomatic engagement seriously. First, Secretary of State John Kerry should lift the State Department’s “no contact policy,” which prevents U.S. diplomats from communicating with their Iranian counterparts. We concede nothing by talking.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has pointed out, “Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union” and that the United States should utilize “any channel that’s open” to communicate with Iran.
Second, the United States and Iran should agree to negotiate directly, without preconditions, on all outstanding issues. A negotiated resolution that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will most likely include discussion of other issues, including the ongoing war in Syria. Iran’s role in Syria is appalling, but stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will most likely require addressing all outstanding issues, not just the ones we want to talk about.
Finally, the debate in Congress about U.S. policy toward Iran should be broadened to include diplomacy and human rights in addition to sanctions. Appointing a special envoy to lead bilateral and multilateral negotiations with Tehran would facilitate that debate and strengthen our two-track policy of both sanctions and diplomacy. The American people deserve to know what their representatives are doing to keep our nation safe and avoid another costly war in the Middle East.
Nothing guarantees that renewed diplomatic engagement with Iran will be successful. Progress will be slow and hard-fought. It will require painstaking effort, patience and determination. But there is no better option. Rigorous, sustained diplomacy is the United States’ best hope to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and a new war in the Middle East.
Keith Ellison represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. Jim McDermott represents Washington’s 7th Congressional District.