Skip to main content

Mideast peace starts with talking to Iran

By Gary Sick, Special to CNN
November 16, 2012 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
British EU official Catherine Ashton, front left, walks with Iraq's Hoshyar Zebari to talks between the P5+1 and Iran.
British EU official Catherine Ashton, front left, walks with Iraq's Hoshyar Zebari to talks between the P5+1 and Iran.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gary Sick: Mideast issues are all bound up together, impossible to disentangle
  • Syria, Iran, Israel, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia: All are intertwined politically
  • Obama's first step must be to deal with Iran, he says, accepting compromise essential
  • Sick: Iran deal would cut threat of war, help in Syria, lesson risk of nuclear proliferation in region

Editor's note: Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and he was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. Sick is a senior research scholar and adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University, a member of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York and founding chair of its advisory committee on the Middle East and North Africa.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama is getting a lot of free advice. Here's a question, not an answer: With every issue in the Middle East intertwined with every other, like a giant bowl of spaghetti, where do you begin?

In reality, no matter where you begin in the Middle East, each strand connects to almost every other:

Syria? Immediately you must think of the Turks who are harboring refugees and fighters just across the border, and Syrian Kurds, who are beginning to harbor thoughts of autonomy and are increasing contacts with their ethnic brothers in Iraq and Turkey.

Gary Sick
Gary Sick

Iran, of course, is aiding the beleaguered Bashar al-Assad but also trying to organize an exit strategy; Saudi Arabia and Qatar are pouring money and arms into the country with the sole purpose of cracking the Syria-Iran entente; Iraq fears that a Sunni takeover in Syria will revitalize its own restless Sunnis.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The Palestinian issue? No need to elaborate. That is tangled up with everything in the Middle East.

The Arab awakening? The policies you adopt with the emerging Islamist governments will affect every strand you touch in the region, from relations with Israel to the Arab states in the Persian Gulf that are terrified of sweeping change.

Iran fires on unarmed U.S. drone
Oil market set for a game changer?
Iranian jets fire on U.S. drone

The president will not have the luxury of choosing a single issue and ignoring or postponing all the others. The whole Middle East has a habit of intruding, and policy choices will have to be made about each of the major issues, even if it is not convenient.

Still, in plotting a second term, the president must establish some priorities. Trying to do everything at once is not only bad strategy, it is a certain recipe for failure across the board.

A point of entry: Possibly the most promising strand to pull when trying to unravel the Mideast problem is the Iranian dilemma. When Obama came into office four years ago, he courageously promised to engage Iranian leaders. He made a genuine attempt, but he quickly pulled back in the face of Iran's brutal suppression of a civil uprising, Israeli demands for an early deadline on the nuclear issue and the fact that he had a lot on his domestic plate. Trita Parsi evocatively describes that episode in the book "A Single Roll of the Dice."

There was no staying power. Instead, the United States reverted to its default position of sanctions while maintaining the framework for serious negotiations with Iran as part of the so-called P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) plus one (Germany).

The sanctions did their job. Iran has gladly accepted the invitation of the P5+1 to return to the negotiating table. However, in the run-up to the presidential election, the United States was unwilling to put a meaningful offer on the table, and the negotiating track languished in a kind of limbo.

The value of sanctions: Sanctions have two useful purposes. One is to persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table. That has happened. The other is to give the sanctioning party something to bargain away in return for concessions.

Up to this point, the United States has been unwilling to offer significant sanctions relief in return for significant concessions from Iran. Sanctions have assumed a life of their own and are gradually becoming politically untouchable. If that remains true, then there is no prospect of serious negotiations.

There is another use of sanctions -- to punish a party you don't like and potentially coerce them into submission or collapse. The current sanctions regime is taking on that coloration, even if it is seldom discussed as such.

The record of sanctions in producing abject surrender or regime change is not promising. Instead, the sanctions typically hurt the average citizen, while leaders escape most of the effects and adopt a defiant posture, blaming their own failings on outside interference. This is beginning to happen in Iran today.

Vicious assaults on the well-being of a country's population can produce popular bitterness and hostility against the "enemy" that can last for generations.

The shape of an agenda: As with many long-standing disputes, the broad outlines of a settlement are well-known to the parties. What is lacking is the political judgment by both sides that now is the moment to proceed with a deal that will require mutual compromise.

The United States and its allies will have to accept a measure of Iranian domestic enrichment of uranium. Iran will have to accept limits on its entire nuclear infrastructure, subject to intrusive inspections and monitoring. Iran will need to document the history of its nuclear program, and the West will need to remove sanctions. All of this must happen in a step-by-step process with safeguards and verifications at each stage.

There is nothing easy about it. The Iranians are known as obstinate and often infuriating negotiators. The United States is not known for its patience, and it can be clumsy and ponderous as it attempts to please multiple constituencies at the same time. Iran is certain to face strong objections from its hardliners, and the same will apply in the United States.

The hardliners on both sides, who regard another Middle East war as an acceptable option, reinforce each other and impede efforts to find mutually acceptable compromises. Israel and the U.S. Congress will try to impose impractically tight deadlines. And events in the region, such as the recent case of Iranian aircraft firing on a U.S. surveillance drone, can sabotage negotiations.

The Arab states of the Gulf will be intensely suspicious of any hint of a secret deal between the United States and Iran. They remember America's strategic reliance on the shah, the Reagan administration's covert sale of weapons to Iran in the mid-1980s and America's installation of a Shia government in Iraq. They (and Israel) will have to be persuaded that any accommodation with Iran is not at their expense.

Private and public negotiations: The starting point must be private U.S.-Iran discussions, leading to an agreed agenda. Both sides have recently hinted that such talks are under consideration, and reactions from the European Union, Russia and even the American people have been undismayed, even openly supportive.

The choice of representatives and venues is less important than confidence that delegates credibly reflect the view of their leaders. Experience suggests that an agreed agenda is more likely to emerge from bilateral discussions outside the glare of publicity. If that is accomplished, then the actual negotiations could be carried out within the existing P5+1 framework.

Even a preliminary agreement -- establishing a mutually acceptable process with a defined end point -- would help to unravel some of the tangles of Middle East issues.

The threat of a new war in the Middle East would be reduced. The possibility of getting Iranian cooperation on Syria would be improved. The threat of nuclear proliferation in the region would be tamped down at least temporarily. And the multiple flash points in the Gulf could potentially cool down, leaving opportunities for more constructive initiatives.

The history of U.S.-Iran relations is a story of relentless hostility and serial missed opportunities. Chances for genuine progress come along scarcely once in a decade.

So, Mr. President, here is one more piece of free advice: The present constellation of circumstances with Iran is probably the best you're going to get. Don't let it pass.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Gary Sick.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT