By Alfred Nurja
The Prague-based Radio Liberty (formerly known as Radio Free Europe) reported last weekend that the State Department has appointed Alan Eyre, as the first Persian-language spokesperson. Reportedly Mr. Eyre is authorized to appear on Iranian state-owned media and according to the article "the move seems to be part of an increased effort by the Obama administration to reach out to the Iranians directly."
While it remains to be seen what kind of access to the Iranian public Tehran will grant to U.S. officials, the decision is also important for demonstrating the administration's willingness to increase the level of engagement with the Iran. Reinforcing this signal, at a time when the administration has emphasized that it is preparing to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime has a potential impact that exceeds the public diplomacy utility of speaking directly to the Iranian people.
As President Obama emphasized during his second Nowruz message to the Iranian people a few weeks ago, it is important that the administration demonstrate with concrete actions that the "offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue [with Iran] stands." As emphasized previously in an Arms Control Now blogpost, the chances of success for the long-standing two-track strategy of engagement and pressure with Iran are only increased by a more balanced approach that intensifies sustained efforts on both tracks.
To be effective in reinforcing the engagement track, this most recent step by the administration could be followed by additional measures, such as permitting "normal interaction between American and Iranian diplomats in third countries and international organizations" as well as exploring other areas where separate unilateral discussions with Iran can be pursued such as combating drug trafficking or seeking resolution of Afghanistan issues where common concerns may be identified.
It may well be that, as Iran's behavior suggests, for reasons of perceived need to seek internal legitimacy in defiance, justifying repressive policies as well as the exigencies of domestic politics, the Iranian authorities may again chose to rebuff any such steps. History shows that as much as they are obsessed with denouncing foreign enemies, repressive regimes often identify an existential rationale in their existence. As State Department Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Robert Einhorn stated during the recent panel on Iran at this year's Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, "One of the silver linings of this disappointing Istanbul meeting was that Iran's unconstructive behavior has reinforced the unity of the six [the P5+1]." Regardless of the Iranian response, therefore, such actions by the administration would have value in themselves and could generate additional costs for the Iranian regime if spurned.
This decision also comes at an important moment in U.S. domestic politics when there have been increased calls by certain members of Congress to press the administration for more robust implementation of U.S. unilateral sanctions against foreign companies who do business with Iran. Beyond the inherently controversial legal nature of implementing U.S. legislation that has an extra-territorial application, blanket implementation of such measures, unmitigated by the use of political discretion permitted the U.S. President under the sanction's legislation, could potentially backfire.
Unless carefully calibrated, pressing for coercive measures, such as those called for by some of the senators, carries the inherent risk of alienating critical international partners needed to enforce an effective sanctions regime. The key to a successful sanctions regime lies more in the administration's ability to sustain and reinforce a global coalition rather than in the administration's capacity to take stringent unilateral measures that could risk fracturing that coalition. Fortunately, as the administration's agile policy has already demonstrated, there is a way to do both while ensuring the health of the global coalition and pursuing additional effective measures by working with like-minded allies.
As Einhorn stated last week at Carnegie, "the dual-track strategy can succeed, but it needs the strong support of the entire international community."