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On US and Iran, is there an end game?

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via NIAC

Washington DC – “For US-Iran talks to succeed, the end destination of the journey needs to be defined ahead of time,” said Dr. Trita Parsi, President of National Iranian American Council. Due to lack of trust on both sides, small steps and tactical confidence building will be insufficient to overcome mutual suspicions, he argued. “The contours of the end game need to be agreed upon to infuse the necessary confidence into the negotiating process. “

Parsi was joined Wednesday morning by Alex Vatanka at the Middle East Institute’s conference on Iran. Vatanka is an adjunct lecturer at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School. Iran’s failed attempts to improve relations when President Bush was in office may have made Iran more cautious in current talks with the United States.

Parsi stated, “In the past there has been tactical collaboration between the U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan, but there was no intention by the US to let the collaboration lead to an improvement of relations. Right or wrong, Iran felt that it was duped.”

Making the situation more complex, Iran has been opaque in expressing what it wants and expects from the United States. “Iran has created a void by not communicating its vision,” said Parsi. “That void has then been filled by competing powers’ worst nightmares of Iranian intentions.”

While Parsi focused on political relations between the United States and Iran, Alex Vatanka spent a large part of his discussion focused on the upcoming presidential elections, specifically former President Mohammad Khatami’s decision to run for President. Mr. Vatanka wondered aloud, “Why did Khamati wait so long?” “I think he wanted Khamenei’s support.” That conclusion led Mr. Vatanka to pose two more questions. “Did he get Khamenei’s support? And if so, what does this mean?”

Though the presidential elections could change the face of Iran, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, will still have the final say.“The Supreme Leader’s office is important; it’s crucial,” stated Vatanka. This has several implications for the future of US Iran foreign policy.

“If Khamenei did give Khatami, a reformist, the green light, then it’s going to be a steep hill for Ahmadinejad,” said Vatanka. But, this does not necessarily mean that Khamenei is looking to take a reformist approach. Khatami’s cautious approach to reform could mean that not much will change in Iran, no matter the presidential outcome, according to Mr. Vatanka.

Mr. Vatanka and Parsi agreed that the change in the language used by the Obama administration is very positive, and more changes can be expected. The term “carrots and sticks” has been met with very negatively in Iran, with the Iranians responding that “carrots and sticks are for donkeys.”

But the problem with this terminology, in Parsi’s view, goes beyond symbolism and exaggerated Iranian sensitive. Though incentives and disincentives inevitably will be part of any negotiation, characterizing the talks only in those terms assumes that progress in diplomacy can only be made if the US coerces Iran to do something that it otherwise would not do. “The thinking behind the metaphor deprives decision-makers from the ability to imagine and explore win-win solutions, situations in which neither side has to coerce the other. Therein lies the real problem with the carrots and sticks mentality.”

Irancove @ February 12, 2009

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