Summary of the breakout conversation “The U.S. – Iran Relationship: How to handle a nuclear Iran?” at the 2010 Annual Members’ Conference.


Barbara Slavin, Author, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation
Michael Singh, Former Senior Director for Middle East Affairs, National Security Council
Moderated by Mark Brzezinski, Partner, McGuire Woods


This discussion focused on U.S. Iran relations, effects of the UN sanctions, options for U.S. policymakers and internal elements within Iran’s political landscape which may, if in power, change the dynamics of the current tensions. 

There has been much commentary about whether Iran is rushing towards creating nuclear weapons.  However, although U.S. intelligence cannot obtain the full picture, and Iran has taken several steps that would make it harder to detect such actions, signs indicate that they have not yet started moving towards developing weapons.  Many international safeguards are still in place (although not a guarantee) and intelligence has been gathered regarding uranium enrichment facilities and information obtained from some defectors.  The Iranians seems to have enough uranium for two weapons, but it is being carefully monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

One of the determinants to whether Iran will move towards the development of nuclear weapons will be internal consensus.  Although there does seem to be consensus in Iran about its right to enrich uranium, the decision to go forth with a weapon has not been made.  (An attack by U.S. or Israel, however, may prompt that decision.) 

Another point of contention between international policymakers and experts has been the effect of the sanctions regime against Iran.  Are the current sanctions enough?  Are there areas that should be covered by more sanctions?  Could these sanctions solidify Iranian public opinion against the U.S.?  The sanctions task is undoubtedly difficult, and the current U.S. approach of getting the most they could from the UN Security Council and then following up with country specific sanctions, has put pressure on the Iranian regime.  However, the end goal is not pressure.  And, therefore, the U.S. has not been successful in achieving their purpose, which would be stopping uranium enrichment.  The question now remains – what is the realistic next set of sanctions?  The U.S. and international community could take tougher sanctions such as on oil exports, but that would be highly politically unpopular and have negative repercussions around the world.  There is also a sense of “sanctions fatigue” by some countries. 

However, there has been significant pressure caused by the current sanctions, for example, in the banking sector that has shut Iran out of the international financial markets.  Many companies previously doing business with Iran have left due to their interests in maintaining ties with U.S. companies.  The Iranians are unable to renovate their oil and gas fields and more strikes are occurring by workers of state owned companies.  It is unclear whether Iran can afford more sanctions.  But, it is important to note that Iran has not been an open or prosperous economy, so these sanctions are not presenting a stark change from where they’ve always been.

The sanctions have cut off some relationships countries have with Iran, but not others.  Iranians would love to have an economic relationship with the US – they have a tremendous love for American goods, dating back to the pre-revolution.  In the 1990s, there was a period of “constructive engagement” by Europeans, which the Iranians looked upon favorably.  Now they are reluctantly turning to China because the Europeans have stepped away. However, although the Iran regime thought they could play the “China card,” the Chinese, as well as the Japanese and the Koreans are also buying less, which is causing resentment in the economy.  Turkey has had a relationship with Iran, but after a couple of major contracts with Iran (including the construction of a new international airport) were broken and given to Revolutionary Guards, even the Turkish companies are not eager to get back in.

Would Iranian foreign policy change if the opposition movement were in power?  Some schools of thought argue that the opposition is not that different in their views towards how Iran engages externally.  However, there does seem to be a difference.  The reform movement understands that Iran needs to be less provocative when dealing with the U.S. and UN.      

Another important topic raised during the discussion was on the Obama Administration’s approach to Iran moving forward, especially given the unsuccessful negotiations in October 2009.  The negotiations were a way for the Obama Administration to test the waters and build confidence, and get into the process of earnest negotiations.  However, they did not get into the core interests of the U.S.  As a confidence building measure, it failed, but it demonstrated a lack of agreement within Iran.  Will the U.S. pursue again?  The Obama Administration will likely let the sanctions work and see if it pushes Iran to negotiations.  

-Summary by Shikha Bhatnagar, Associate Director, South Asia Center       

This session was held under Atlantic Council Rules, defined by President and CEO Frederick Kempe as “Chatham House Rules with military enforcement.”  

Related Experts: Barbara Slavin