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Will Obama 'Double Down' On Iran - Or Will Nuclear Talks End In A 'Nightmare'?

Yesterday, Brookings Foreign Policy program launched its 2014 edition of "Big Bets & Black Swans: A Presidential Briefing Book," a series of memos offering recommendations by Brookings experts to President Obama on the most pressing foreign policy challenges for the forthcoming year. The papers are grouped in five categories: Big Bets, Double Downs, Black Swans, Nightmares, and Holds. Two of the memos focus on Iran — my own proposal that the administration "double down" on its investment in diplomacy with Iran, and a countervailing set of policy recommendations, written by Brookings Senior Fellows and former U.S. policymakers Robert Einhorn and Kenneth Pollack, addressing the potential "nightmare" of a collapse in the nuclear negotiations.

Together, the two Iran memos in this year's "Big Bets, Black Swans" briefing book highlight the opportunities and the challenges ahead for the Obama administration on Iran. They probably are best read in tandem, since the odds of succeeding in a gambit to expand the playing field of diplomatic engagement with Tehran are surely no greater than the odds that the tentative progress on curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions will run aground as a result of domestic politics or deliberate Iranian deception. 

Still, whatever may unfold over the course of the next 12 months, I found the publication of this year's compilation a reminder of just how far the debate on Iran has moved in the span of a year. My contribution to the 2013 "Big Bets, Black Swans" briefing book, entitled "Turning Tehran," argued that Obama should "return to where you began on Iran with a major diplomatic initiative." I made the case that conditions were ripe for a breakthrough, but my sense is that few outside the administration took this possibility seriously.

After all, at first glance, the news coming out of Iran early last year hardly seemed promising: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered yet another invective-laden diatribe insisting that Tehran would never negotiate under pressure and the first round of nuclear talks in months ended with little sense of progress. Beneath the surface, however, there were clear signs of a historic shift underway within the leadership; even hard-liners were acknowledging the worsening toll of sanctions; then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's feud with the establishment boiled over on the floor of the parliament; and other influential officials — including aspiring presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani — began hinting in increasingly unsubtle fashion about the utility of direct talks with the 'Great Satan.'

The pieces of the puzzle were obvious, but few anticipated what they might produce: the surprising election of a moderate president and a sudden new momentum toward resolving the decade-old nuclear impasse. And even fewer were aware that Washington had already begun to test the possibilities for diplomatic re-engagement with Iran, through quiet backchannel discussions which initially seemed fruitless but which eventually expanded and backstopped the public negotiations that crafted the interim nuclear accord.

The Obama administration's foreign policy has inspired fierce criticisms from both the right and the left, much of it entirely justified. However, the achievement of the first tangible sign of progress on curtailing Iran's nuclear program deserves credit and appreciation precisely because it reflects the combination of long-term strategic thinking and near-term diplomatic deftness that is too often lacking U.S. foreign policy. This preliminary breakthrough with Iran would not have been possible without Washington's creation of new levers of influence through the sanctions regime, the generation and maintenance of wide-ranging international cooperation on Iran, the recognition the opportunity presented by Rouhani, and the willingness to take a "big bet" on reaching out to his incipient administration.

So often, Iran seems like an intractable problem for U.S. policymakers. The conflict with Iran is now more than a generation old, and the nuclear issue has been accurately described as a "crisis" for at least a dozen years. Still, the developments of 2013 should underscore the persistent unpredictability of Iran and the possibilities that can be created through American vision and dexterity. A year ago, our recommendations for a new diplomatic initiative toward Tehran seemed like wishful thinking, and yet they came to fruition. It will be interesting to return to the challenge of Iran in yet another year.

For more on the Big Bets, Black Swans project, you can tune into video from the launch event here, which included discussion of related issues including U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, North Korea, nonproliferation and the broader Middle East; the event was moderated by New York Times correspondent David Sanger, who is himself the author of a best-selling book on U.S. efforts to deter Iran's nuclear progress. I'd also encourage you to download a PDF of all the memos in the project, entitled Big Bets & Black Swans: A Presidential Briefing Book; or purchase an eBook version of the document on Amazon.com.