Skip to main content

Mideast peace starts with talking to Iran

By Gary Sick, Special to CNN
updated 3:36 AM EST, Fri November 16, 2012
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
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT