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April 13, 2009

Okay, we’ll talk to Iran…. (now what?)

Everyone–literally everyone –who favors diplomacy with Iran is asking the same question right now: What do we do now that Barack Obama is President?
For the last eight years, the pro-engagement community honed its defensive skills.  For the duration of the Bush regime, this rag-tag band of progressives, trade groups, security organizations, and religious groups was in the opposition, with more than a few people even making a career out of stopping war with Iran.   But all that changed on November 4.
We now find ourselves in the unfamiliar position of having an ally in the White House.  War is off the table, at least for the foreseeable future.  US diplomats will attend face-to-face meetings with the Iranians on the nuclear issue “from now on.” Even new sanctions are on hold until talks get underway.  So for those of us still working to promote diplomacy with Iran, what else is there to do?
The short answer: a lot.
First of all, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.  While Obama is light-years beyond most other politicians on Iran, it’s too early to sit back and relax.  The well-organized and powerful Israel lobby that claimed credit for the Chas Freeman debacle is already working hard to undermine Obama’s plan for diplomacy with Iran.  Late last month, this same group produced a letter to the President regarding his stance on the Iran issue.  That letter, signed by senior Democratic members of Congress including the Majority Leader, the chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Energy and Commerce, and Intelligence Committees, plus the chairmen of the Subcommittees on Europe and the Middle East, recommended that a suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program be the goal of any negotiations.  It also included a suggested time-table for diplomacy to extend “at most a few months,” after which the President should “immediately apply the tools at your disposal to increase economic pressure on the Iranians.”
What was conspicuously lacking from this letter was anything that could allow the reader to write it off as another neocon ploy–there were no Republican signatories (although I’m sure the line of Republican lawmakers just itching to sign on stretched around the block.)  There was also no sign of opposition to the President’s policy–the letter was couched in a respectful tone, with statements like “We write in strong agreement with your firm position.”  For lawmakers trying to maneuver around a President with soaring approval ratings like Obama’s, this was a smart move.
So if these lawmakers and the powerful interests groups backing them up get their way, the historic reopening of ties between the US and Iran will last about a couple of months, during which time American diplomats will be given an impossible task without any real support from back home, and which will only lead to the exact same place we were in this time last year.
So what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen?
First, the most important thing for our Iran policy is to resist those calling for an arbitrary deadline on talks.  America has given sanctions thirty years to succeed and they haven’t worked yet.  It is naïve to think that diplomacy could have any chance of success in only a couple of months.
And though no one wants to let Iran use negotiations as a cover for advancing its nuclear program, the reality is that Iran has already crossed every threshold but the one that really matters: weaponization.
According to most estimates, Iran now has a sufficiently large stockpile of low-enriched uranium to develop a nuclear bomb if it chose to pursue one.  Iran hasn’t done this because it would be easily detected–Iran would have to kick out IAEA inspectors, pull out of the NPT, and re-route nuclear material–and of course once the international community knows that Iran is pursuing a weapon, it will take swift and decisive action.  So the only real deadline for talks to succeed is the one governed by Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon–anything else would just be rash.
Secondly, Congress needs to speak up.  The President has made no secret of his plan to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran, overturning three decades of American foreign policy on Iran.  Yet Congress has not made one gesture indicating approval of the President’s plan.  Congress has never passed a resolution supporting talks with Iran.  Ever.  And now the President of the United States is travelling around the world telling our allies that this will be our policy and the only thing Congress has gone on record for is sanctions.  That should change.
Congress right now has the opportunity to fix this, and do it in a way that will let members save face.  There is currently a bipartisan resolution in the House (H.Con.Res. 94), that calls for direct military-to-military negotiations for minimizing the risk of incidents between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf.  This is a common-sense measure that will safeguard the lives of our men and women in uniform while strengthening our national and economic security.  It should be a no-brainer.
Members should use this opportunity to speak out on a bipartisan basis for talks with Iran–not because the President says so, or because they want to start “palling around” with the Ayatollahs–but because it is in our own national security interest to do so.  When it serves our national security interests, and protects the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, why shouldn’t members of Congress speak out in favor of talks with Iran?   Surely no one is in favor of an accidental war with Iran.
This would do two things: it would provide critical bipartisan support for a key facet of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East; and it would put in place a sensible measure for protecting our ships and sailors in harm’s way.
With this, Congress can chip away at the notion that talking to Iran is something only liberals who are weak on defense can support.  Members should acknowledge that diplomacy with Iran is an effective way to achieve key American objectives. And members shouldn’t be nervous about pursuing what’s best for our national security.
So though President Obama has set out on the right path, there is still a lot more to be done in order to ensure his Iran policy is effective.  And that means a lot of us have a chance to do something we’re not used to: going on the offensive.

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