July 31, 2009

Why the role reversal on Iran?

The ultra-hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan argued yesterday that the West is confused about how to engage Iran in the aftermath of Iran’s election and crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. However, it isn’t confusion that they’re witnessing – it’s a surprising role reversal. Many people who previously advocated for engagement now say that we need to hold off for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Iran’s fragmented political system is in too much disarray to respond to U.S.-backed diplomacy. Conversely, many hawks in the U.S. are now arguing that engagement must begin immediately.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear what the Obama administration thinks. “We’ve certainly reached out and made it clear that’s what we’d be willing to do, even now, despite our absolute condemnation of what they’ve done in the election and since, but I don’t think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now,” she said. As one blogger astutely put it, demanding Iran to talk to the U.S. right now would be akin to Russia demanding that the United States negotiate an arms reduction treaty in the midst of Bush v. Gore.
Rather than benefiting from Iran’s vulnerabilities, engaging now could lead to the most dangerous scenario. As Dr. Parsi said yesterday in Foreign Policy magazine:

Of all scenarios the Obama administration could end up facing — an Iran that refuses to come to the table, for example, or an Iran that only uses talks to play for time — the worst scenario is another one: where the parties begin talks according to the set timetable, but fail to reach an agreement due to an inability to deliver. If talks fail, U.S. policymakers will be left with increasingly unpalatable options as a result.

Perhaps this explains why advocates of sanctions and/or war, who not long ago were saying that we shouldn’t talk to Iran at all, are now saying that the U.S. should engage Iran immediately with a short timetable.
Why the role reversal? Many in Washington believe engagement is a pointless exercise and are eager to impose sanctions and/or bomb Iran. The perma-skeptics of diplomacy think we should impose an artificial deadline, rush to engage, and then run headlong into Iran’s political paralysis. Their plan would have us miss the deadline,  sanction Iran as much as possible, and then lobby for the U.S. to bomb Iran when sanctions fail to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Of course, this is an incredibly foolish “solution.”  As every Iran expert worth their salt has noted, bombing Iran is perhaps the only thing that can cement this government’s hold on power indefinitely into the future.
With Israel’s head of intelligence publicly saying Iran won’t be able to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon until 2014 at the earliest, the U.S. can and should wait for the right time to engage.

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