A key question for the next US President is whether America will choose war or peace with Iran. As Obama and Romney trade barbs over Iran, their rhetoric evades the realities shaping American interests. Iran is critical to solutions for seven US national security challenges: non-proliferation, energy security, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, counter-terrorism, and Israeli-Palestinian peace. America’s status quo relationship with Iran exacerbates these challenges. If the US attacks Iran, all bets are off. As James Jeffrey – a former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor – recently remarked: “If you want to be serious about regime change [in Iran], I give you Iraq 2003. Have a nice day.”
The fact that Iran continues to be a national security challenge demonstrates an uncomfortable reality for a generation of American policy-makers: over three decades of pressure-based policies have failed to produce any positive outcome. Nevertheless, domestic political realities require presidential candidates to talk tough on Iran. Obama and Romney are no exceptions to this rule, but the differences between them are important.
The Obama campaign has warned against loose talk of war, emphasized that it remains a last resort, and chastised those pushing a war agenda for failing to describe the costs of war. The Romney campaign has taken a different tack. Most Republican foreign policy advisers – many of whom supported the Iraq war while serving in the Bush administration – have concluded that war with Iran is essential. Of course, a president is often only as smart as the advisers with whom he surrounds himself. For that reason, Republican support for war should not be dismissed as campaign rhetoric.
Political parties in the US do not dictate the range of options available to an American president. Obama and Romney face the same reality: the tools of statecraft are simple – war or diplomacy. Anything else – whether it is called containment, regime change or dual track – is simply a tactic that delays the inevitable choice between these two options. The inconvenient truth of statecraft is that most conflicts – even war – end via negotiations; and everything before negotiations – including war – is for leverage. Efforts to delay this inevitable choice have only added pressure to escalate to the worst possible outcome.
If the next US President wants peace, he must recalibrate US policy to consider seriously the political, economic and security incentives sought by Iran – incentives that any diplomatic solution would have to address. This does not imply that concessions must be made on each of these fronts. Only robust diplomacy can determine whether it is in America’s interest to address Iranian concerns. But if America does not lead a process of sustained negotiations, then diplomacy will be deemed one-sided, and will fail without having being executed in good faith.
Naturally, it takes two to tango. No policy can guarantee success, and it remains unclear whether Iran will reciprocate American overtures. But if peace is the metric of success, then diplomacy provides a better guarantee than war. With that in mind, the next US President can best avoid mistakes like the Iraq war by learning from limits of American military prowess – and placing the same level of confidence in the power of American diplomacy.”