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Of all the congratulatory messages received by then-Senator Barack Obama just after his victory in the tightly contested 2008 presidential race, perhaps the most interesting was a rather direct missive from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “The great Iranian nation welcomes real, fundamental, and fair changes in America’s behavior and policies,” he said, “particularly in the Middle East region.” Over the first few days of its tenure in office, the Obama Administration has made it a public priority to right the wrongs of the Bush years and restore competent diplomacy to its prominent role in American foreign policy. Toward that end, the United States should take a major step forward by establishing diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
First and foremost, re-establishing relations with Iran will inspire the morose progress of nuclear negotiations by demonstrating America’s seriousness in actually approaching, and not just bullying, Iran. Since 2006, negotiations have dragged on with virtually no results; the politically hamstrung Iran Six (China, Britain, France, Germany, the US, Russia) have continued to press their relatively toothless sanctions while a determined Iran keeps plodding on in its ascent to the nuclear club. As a senator, President Obama compiled an impressive record on nuclear non-proliferation. By engaging Iran effectively on this issue, he could help to keep the world a safer place.
The importance of direct negotiations on this issue cannot be understated. The current diplomatic approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is overwhelmingly dependent on economic sanctions and is simply not effective. This is due to the volatile state of global energy markets, particularly crude oil. Since Tehran relies on oil exports for 85 percent of its foreign exchange revenue, UN sanctions can be rendered meaningless by steady increases in the price of oil and gas—a trend that has reached alarming rates in the past five years.
In fact, establishing diplomatic relations with Iran would allow the US to use the rising price of oil to its advantage. Currently, Iranian oil production is barely 60 percent of what it was in 1977. This fall in production has been largely attributed to a lack of foreign investment. Without formal diplomatic relations, US companies cannot effectively do business in Iran. Similarly, US diplomats are unable to make credible promises. If the US re-establishes official relations, American oil companies—who have some of the most advanced petroleum extraction technologies in the world—could easily increase Iranian oil output to its pre-revolutionary output. Reviving the Iranian oil industry to this standard could bring the country nearly $7.5 billion monthly, a massive sum for a country whose annual GDP is around $760 billion.
Furthermore, releasing Iranian oil into the market would be positive for all parties. Rather than carrying out costly exploration for difficult-to-attain oil, Western oil companies could instead reap the benefits of relatively accessible Iranian oil. Moreover, Iran and the West would share the economic benefits of increased investment and increased oil supply.
Re-establishing diplomatic relations with Tehran would also have immediate benefits for our forces in Iraq; a friendlier Iran would be less likely to support sectarian belligerents in that divided nation. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group contends that a friendlier Iran is crucial to this endeavor. If the US establishes relations, it will be able to use its diplomatic and economic clout to garner enforceable agreements on arms control between Iraq and Iran. Coming to an accord will certainly help secure the safety of American troops. Other problems with the Islamic Republic notwithstanding, the potential to disarm the enemies of American soldiers should take first priority.
Of course, many may contest the idea of enriching a non-democratic, repressive, and relatively unfriendly government. However, considering some of the other countries from which the US purchases oil—a radically unfriendly and Soviet-esque Chavez regime in Venezuela and the notoriously absolutist monarchy in Saudi Arabia—any strategic or moral reservations about buying Iranian oil are moot points. In reality, the hardliners who oppose both developing trade with Iran and developing alternative energy sources are doing more damage to American security than re-opening our embassy in Tehran ever will.
Of course, some supporters of Israel may see the re-establishment of relations as a threat to the Israeli state. However, the truth is a bit more complicated. The re-establishment of formal relations will open diplomatic channels by which the US can help Iran to reconcile its differences with Israel and other Middle Eastern states. The present situation leaves the United States in a bind, unable to effectively mediate between two hostile parties and forced to resort to bullying and bellicose language. Opening relations with Iran will at least put negotiation on the table.
It is time to shed the Bush-era belief that diplomacy doesn’t work. Unlike outright military coercion, simple diplomacy is a powerful tool whose countless successes greatly outnumber its failures. Although the Iranian Revolution and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 still leave many Americans bitter, the time for holding grudges has passed. Simply put, the potential for economic benefits, a more stable Middle East, and—perhaps most importantly—saving American soldiers’ lives are simply too great for the US to overlook, even in the face of such a gross offense to international diplomacy. President Obama has already pledged to take America in a new direction; establishing relations with Iran would be the best way to do so, at least in the Middle East.
Matthew H. Ghazarian ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Goverment concentrator in Kirkland House.
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