Make-or-Break for the U.S. and Iran

It is an accident of fate that the quadrennial American exercise in selecting a president happens to coincide almost precisely with the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. That episode unraveled the Carter Administration and left a legacy of U.S.-Iranian animosity that has confounded every subsequent America president. And so it was last week, on the eve of Barack Obama’s historic reelection victory, that thousands of Iranians joined in the Islamic Republic’s commemoration of the hostage ordeal, which has become an annual jubilee of anti-Americanism, with demonstrators showcasing effigies of Obama and shouting ‘death to America.’

Such scenes, together with the bombastic rhetoric of Iranian leaders who used the anniversary to vilify Washington as “the most criminal regime on earth,” might suggest that little has changed between the two old adversaries and that the prospects of any progress in resolving the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain as distant as ever. However, as is often the case with Iran, the reality is more complex than the rhetoric. In fact, both sides have been signaling readiness to jumpstart diplomacy in the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection, with press reports focused on the contours of preliminary concessions from each side circulating even before Americans went to the polls.

The prospect of renewed diplomacy with Tehran only heightens the anticipation that 2013 will prove a make-or-break year for the international effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear activities. Even as hopes for diplomacy intensify, so too do fears of conflict. Tehran’s steady nuclear advances — both in the size of its stockpile of low enriched uranium, as well as the scope and sophistication of its technology and facilities — have prompted repeated Israeli warnings of military strikes against Iran, as well as an increasingly explicit American commitment to use force to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

In seeking to avoid the worst case scenario — war — President Obama in his second term may be tempted to pursue the best-case scenario that eluded him the first time around, a comprehensive resolution of the deep differences between the two governments. After all, his efforts to date have produced most severe sanctions regime in history, with unprecedented international cooperation, and the impact on Iran’s economy has been catastrophic. Oil exports have fallen by half, the Iranian currency has crashed, and Tehran’s perennially restive citizenry is feeling the worst of the pinch. Leverage — perceived by Washington to be the holy grail for dealing with Iran — is finally on the side of the international community.

However, even this vaunted leverage over the embattled Iranian regime cannot generate a grand bargain. Economic pressure does not create trust; rather, it has entrenched the already profound paranoia within current Iranian leadership about American intentions. For Tehran, the nuclear issue is merely a pretext for forcing the regime from power, and concessions without adequate compensation only invite intensified pressure. For the unprompted talk in Tehran of a unilateral move to suspend its most worrisome enrichment activities, it should not be overlooked that the Islamic Republic expects to be rewarded handsomely for even any preliminary cooperation on the nuclear issue. Short of that, Tehran is banking on a fragile international economy to erode support for sanction, as well as on its own well-honed tactics of sanctions evasion and economic austerity to navigate its current predicament.

Nor is the domestic political environment in Tehran terribly conducive to ambitious undertakings. Iran’s most infamous politician, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been thoroughly sidelined and humiliated, a convenient scapegoat for the economic implosion, leaving the fate of the country in the hands of its hardest-line ideologues and most stalwart supporters of the revolution. They abide by Iran’s ultimate authority, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who boasts a continuous and unblemished track record of antipathy toward any real rapprochement with Washington. With such a partner, mistrust, misperceptions, and missteps will inevitably undo any effort to craft a grand bargain.

In other words, an American effort to go big on Iran is likely founder, and ultimately will only expedite the path to war. President Obama should resist any second-term sense of optimism about the prospects for achieving expansive ambitions with respect to Iran.

However, he can also push back more forcefully on the efforts, both domestically and by American allies such as Israel, to force his hand on military action. Governor Romney’s failed bid to use Iran as a pressure point on the current administration only reinforced the obvious reality that the American people are not eager for engaging in another tortuous military campaign in the Middle East. Today, for perhaps the first time in a generation, there is hard evidence that tough talk on Iran produces no meaningful domestic traction for an American politician. On that basis, Obama should reject any efforts to impose a rigid, predetermined timetable on his diplomatic efforts on Iran.

Instead, in his soon-to-begin second term, Obama needs to adopt a long game on Iran, one that utilizes diplomacy to defer Iran’s nuclear advances incrementally, maintains pressure to prevent Tehran from rescinding on any international commitments, and acknowledges that a durable reversal of Iran’s provocative policies, both at home and abroad, can only be undertaken by a different sort of leadership than the current constellation of revolutionary ideologues.

Such a strategy runs counter to the President’s penchant for grandiose vision and soaring speeches, as well as the tendency to indulge ambition amidst the politically unshackled environment of a second term. When it comes to Iran, however, any ambitions should be tempered by the long litany of bipartisan failures that precedes the present administration, as well as by the persistent capacity of the Iranian political system for evolution and reinvention.