McCain’s Flip-flop on Iran, and a Powerful New Plan for a Grand Bargain

This piece also appears on TPMCafe

One of the lesser noticed shifts that has taken place during this Presidential election campaign is that everyone now favors some kind of diplomatic engagement with Iran:  Obama, of course;  President Bush since earlier this summer, when Undersecretary of State Burns joined the Geneva P5+1 talks; and as of late, John McCain.  The big challenge now becomes what type of engagement, and Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann have just released the most powerful case made so far for America to go for a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran and what the agenda for such an effort might look like.

Flynt (who is a colleague of mine at NAF) and Hillary presented their plan today at a New America event—as part of the NAF ‘Big Ideas’ series.  The entire paper can be read here, their talk from today can be viewed here, and an abbreviated version of their plan also appears in this month’s Washington Monthly.

Before looking at the plan, it is just worth mentioning what is up with the McCain position on Iran.  Initially, McCain tried to tag the Obama tough diplomacy line as appeasement.  Then a few things happened:  President Bush and Secretary Rice sent America’s number three diplomat William Burns to Geneva; the Pentagon leadership made it clear that they looked distinctly unfavorably on the bomb, bomb, bomb Iran approach; and then one afternoon five former Secretaries of State all came out in support of engagement.  So Senator McCain flip-flopped and changed his tune (while of course claiming consistency).  Here is what McCain said in the first debate: “He [Kissinger] said that there could be secretary-level and lower level meetings. I’ve always encouraged them.”  Having lost on the substantive policy question of yes or no to engagement, McCain tried to make this all about a personal Presidential-level meeting with Ahmadinejad by misrepresenting Obama’s position as inexperienced and naïve.  The McCain line sounds like exactly what it is, clutching at straws.

In the policy debate, two things are happening now.  One is a pushback from the anti-engagement crowd, while the other consists of the various efforts to shape what engagement might look like.

While not explicitly rejecting diplomacy, the newly-launched organization—United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI)—looks like a cover for the anti-engagement camp.  It’s mission seems to be all about educating Americans on the dangers of Iran, while having nothing intelligent to say on what to do about it.  If it is not explicitly designed to create the public mood for a future confrontation with Iran, then it could certainly be used to that effect.  It is a shame that Democratic-affiliated luminaries such as Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross have leant their names to an effort that looks and smells like another neo-conservative rehash of the rather successful PNAC push for war with Iraq.  Jim Woolsey is on the Advisory Board of UANI; it looks bad—judge for yourself.

And so to the Flynt-Hillary plan, and to the question of what type of engagement with Iran should be pursued.  The importance of their advocacy for a ‘grand bargain’ and their contribution to the debate is in how it gets beyond the often repeated discourse of bigger carrots and bigger sticks.

Leverett-Mann argue that “a partial easing of tensions…détente, won’t do”, and they explain why:

Simply put, the next U.S. administration will not be able to achieve any of its high-profile policy goals in the Middle East — in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Arab-Israeli arena — or with regard to energy security without putting U.S.-Iranian relations on a more positive trajectory. And that requires more than U.S.-Iranian détente.

The main thrust of their argument, and it is worth reading the whole report, is that

Nearly three decades of U.S. policy toward Iran emphasizing diplomatic isolation, escalating economic pressure, and thinly veiled support for regime change have damaged the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East

In its place they recommend a policy of “thorough-going strategic rapprochement”, which would be “most effectively embodied in the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian ‘grand bargain’”:

Iran’s strategic location (in the heart of the Persian Gulf and at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia), its growing influence and standing in key regional arenas, and its enormous hydrocarbon resources make it a country critical for the United States…For the U.S. administration that takes office in January 2009, strategic rapprochement with Tehran will fall into the “must have” category — something truly imperative for American interests in these critical regions.

Flynt and Hillary set out a quite detailed framework for structuring the ‘grand bargain’ that would need to address three sets of issues:

  • U.S. security interests, including stopping what Washington sees as Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, its support for terrorism, its opposition to a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its problematic role in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Iran’s security interests, including extending U.S. security assurances to the Islamic Republic, lifting unilateral U.S. and multilateral sanctions against Iran, and acknowledging the Islamic Republic’s place in the regional and international order; and
  • developing a cooperative approach to regional security.

They don’t address it, but I would argue that there is a lot of material here and a strong argument that this approach would make a lot of sense for Israel and best serve not only American, but also Israeli, interests.  There are, for instance, provisions for ending military support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and fully integrating them politically and for extending the Arab League offer of contingent normalization with Israel to also include Iran, as well as for a comprehensive approach to regional security (something that was proposed recently by the Bahraini Foreign Minister and well-received in Israel).

Of course no one, not the authors of this plan nor myself, would claim that a ‘grand bargain’ would be anything like an easy thing to achieve.  Yet Leverett and Mann argue convincingly that the Islamic Republic of Iran, while acting in ways that we may oppose, has for many years acted not crazily, but rather “in instrumentally rational ways to defend and advance its interests.”  By injecting a good deal of rationality, realism, and interest-based thinking into the American debate on Iran, Leverett and Mann are doing everyone a significant service.