Engagement with Iran: The Sequel

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

Sometime early in 2013, President Barack Obama is expected to launch a new diplomatic initiative in a bid to resolve the standoff between Iran and the international community over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If this sounds familiar, it is—Obama opened his first term in 2009 with much the same game plan for Iran. That effort represented the culmination of a surprisingly forward-leaning campaign promise to engage with America’s most determined adversaries, and entailed public appeals, back-channel communications, and forays at negotiations. However, Obama’s early overtures made little headway. Washington was caught off-guard in June 2009 by an unexpected explosion of political unrest in Iran. Finding little early evidence of Iranian receptivity to diplomacy, Washington chose to pivot quickly toward a pressure-oriented approach. This approach capitalized upon unprecedented international support for implementing an array of punishing new economic sanctions against Iran.

Yet, here we are again talking about negotiations and a big new gamble aimed at reaching a historic deal with the Iranian regime. This time, however, diplomacy is invigorated not by hope, but by fear: not by a presumption that a more amicable American approach to Tehran could resolve the longstanding estrangement, but by an even more profound sense of urgency surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities and the timetable for avoiding deciding between bombing Iran and an Iranian bomb. The revival of Washington’s diplomatic ambitions toward Tehran is also underpinned by a newfound American sense of advantage. The United States has exited one costly war in Iraq and is beginning to wind down another in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Iran’s economy is reeling under the strain of the most far-reaching sanctions in history, implemented by the broadest ever global coalition. Tehran has already lost tens of billions of dollars, and the strain of the sanctions—spiraling inflation, product shortages, and the collapse of the currency—has been felt at every level of Iranian society. On this basis, many U.S. policymakers argue that the Obama administration has, for the first time, achieved the required leverage to force Tehran to rethink its approach to the nuclear issue.

For engagement version 2.0, the stakes are inordinately higher. Since Obama first came to office four years ago, Iran has succeeded in significantly advancing its nuclear capabilities, adding thousands of centrifuges, and inaugurating a heavily fortified underground facility that may be invulnerable to military strikes.1 Its stockpile of low-enriched uranium has grown more than seven-fold, including new capabilities to enrich up to nearly twenty percent, and a steady trickle of revelations appears to suggest that Iran’s research into weaponization—which the intelligence community deemed to be on hiatus—may have resumed. Israeli demands for an explicit American commitment to use force have persuaded Obama to toughen his own stance over the past year, and in the course of the presidential campaign he appeared to go further than ever to signal his readiness to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability.

As a result, many in Washington see 2013 as a make-or-break year for the long-running debate over how to handle the threats posed by Iran. According to this logic, the only alternatives for forestalling Iran’s steady progress toward a nuclear bomb require either that the world negotiates durable constraints to preclude the revolutionary state from acquiring a nuclear weapon, or prepare itself for a third American-led war in the Middle East in the matter of a decade. It is reasonable to question whether this presumption of urgency is valid or realistic; after all, there is an embarrassing tendency of both pundits and policymakers, in Washington and in Israel, to predict that the Iranian nuclear crisis will reach a “point of no return” on an almost annual basis. And yet the conviction with which this view is held in Washington makes such a debate largely moot.

However, such analytical brinkmanship has animated a newfound sense of readiness to revisit American diplomacy on Iran. In fact, with noisy talk from Tehran over the span of many months surrounding possible concessions on its enrichment, both sides appear prepared to get back to the table in a more serious fashion. Obviously, mere readiness for dialogue is hardly a guarantee of success. If the world is to avoid yet another round of escalatory rhetoric or worse, the United States and its allies will have to launch the upcoming round of talks with a more astute strategy for reaching a meaningful agreement than Washington has demonstrated in the past. The following recommendations outline an approach that offers a credible prospect of success.

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