As Barack Obama begins his second term as president, the United States faces a moment of truth in its slow-burning conflict with Iran. Fortunately, re-elected presidents have a unique mandate to pursue game-changing policies — and Obama has a particular opportunity to reverse America’s failing strategy toward Iran.
Obama has already taken important steps to put America back on the right track: He has walked the nation back from the brink of financial collapse, ended a disastrous war in Iraq, and set a deadline for ending the war in Afghanistan. America’s healing process, however, has not occurred in a vacuum. From the impending austerity crisis to the ongoing civil war in Syria, the world’s lone superpower still faces the herculean task of revitalizing its leadership abroad.
Perhaps no issue better illustrates the complex challenges that will define 2013 than U.S.-Iran relations. There are signs that Obama understands the stakes here: As he put it in his second inaugural address, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
Iran is critical to solutions for no less than seven U.S. national security challenges: nuclear non-proliferation, energy security, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, counterterrorism, and Arab-Israeli peace. The status quo exacerbates each of these challenges: As U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey — a former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor — candidly remarked: “If you want to be serious about regime change [in Iran], I give you Iraq 2003. Have a nice day.”
And yet, despite Obama’s stated preference for a peaceful solution to the U.S.-Iran conflict, we stand today at the precipice of a military conflict that policymakers and pundits almost unanimously agree would set off a chain of catastrophic events around the world.
How did a Nobel Peace prize-winning president see a long-standing conflict grow worse on his watch? Despite presenting a solid vision upon entering the White House in 2009, Obama fell prey to an institutionalized enmity to Iran that burned each of his five predecessors in the Oval Office.
Understanding how we got to where we are today holds the key to using Obama’s re-election as a catalyst for finding peaceful solutions to the U.S.-Iran conflict.
Poisoning the Well
The dustbin of history is littered with missed opportunities by both Iran and the United States: The great tragedy of this relationship is that when one side was ready a rapprochement, the other was not.
In the place of conflict resolution has been an increasingly dangerous game of escalation. A toxic combination of festering resentments, perceived grievances, and overall mistrust — all of which run deep in Washington and Tehran — has fueled this growing conflict.
For both sides, history matters. Conspiracy theories are a hallmark of the U.S.-Iran conflict, but far-fetched tales often overshadow legitimate grievances.
For Tehran, the CIA-sponsored 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, longstanding U.S. support for the authoritarian shah, and America’s support for Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq war have shaped its adversarial approach to the United States. For Washington, the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, and the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis are some of the many events that underpin America’s antagonistic approach to Iran.
These memories are seared deep into the minds of today’s decision-makers in Washington and Tehran. Here, I can speak from personal experience. For the majority of my four years at the State Department, the office door across from mine was emblazoned with a 34-year old, 4×4 inch square sticker that read “Free the Hostages” — slightly worn over time, but otherwise untouched. Seemingly a relic of the past to visitors and foreign dignitaries, behind this sticker lies a powerful reality.
Both sides are captives of their history, creating a profound sense of victimization that continues to pollute the political atmosphere. The issues of today are being subsumed by a larger, institutionalized enmity that has been building for three decades.
Ironically, the highest levels of the U.S. government have long acknowledged the overall negative impact that sanctions have on U.S.-Iran relations. When asked about U.S. policy toward Iran at a December 2004 press conference, then President George W. Bush responded with a fleeting moment of honesty: “We’re relying upon others, because we’ve sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran.”
Eight years later, the reality described by Bush remains an inconvenient truth. But the Obama administration has continued to slap new sanctions on Iran. That shouldn’t come as a surprise — it’s what the United States always does, regardless of the results. Sanctions are a tool that American policymakers know: They know how to add them, intensify them, push them through Congress, and negotiate them bilaterally and at the United Nations.
But here’s the bottom line: They’ve never actually worked. Sanctions are meant to change Iran’s strategic calculus to such a degree that the costs of maintaining its current policy trajectory outweigh the benefits — thus pressuring Iran into “changing its behavior.” Rather than capitulate or change course, however, Iran continues to expand and advance its nuclear program.
What’s more, punitive measures hurt the people that America ostensibly seeks to help. Banking sanctions, for instance, are having an increasingly harmful impact on innocent Iranians — humanitarian items such as food and medical exports are being blocked, and Iranian students studying abroad are facing unprecedented difficulties paying the cost of tuition.
The Obama administration has gone out of its way to emphasize that its sanctions are, in fact, working — but if that were true, why would we need one new round of sanctions after another?
The inherent flaw in America’s sanctions-based approach is that the atmosphere of isolation and conflict that they create is precisely one in which Iran’s hardline conservatives thrive. Many Iranian decision-makers also see the West’s reliance on sanctions, which have proved ineffective for over three decades, as an admission that they lack viable policy alternatives. This reinforces Tehran’s belief that regime change is Washington’s true goal, and resistance is therefore a prerequisite for survival.
Sanctions may not be a panacea, but they can sharpen Iran’s choices and ostensibly provide the U.S. with leverage in negotiations. However, America’s unwillingness thus far to offer sanctions relief at the negotiating table has turned sanctions into a blunt instrument.
Although the deep-seated distrust between the United States and Iran has also been heightened by the crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program, it is only one of many issues dividing them. However, it remains the top priority for U.S. policymakers working on Iran — often to the detriment of more important issues, such as the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic. The question remains: Why?
An Iranian nuclear bomb is neither imminent nor a foregone conclusion. The 16 U.S. intelligence agencies judge with high confidence that Iran has conducted no nuclear weapons-related experiments since 2003, that it currently has no nuclear weapons program, and that is has not made the political decision to pursue nuclear weapons. In theory, this provides ample political space for Obama to pursue a sustained process of diplomacy dedicated to ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains verifiably peaceful.
In practice, however, we often see the opposite from Washington — self-imposed time limits on diplomacy, unprecedented coercive measures, and sensationalistic journalism about an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon. Why the disconnect? Because at present, Iran is pursuing a strategic middle ground called nuclear latency: It aims to build a nuclear energy program that would allow for the production of a nuclear weapon on short notice if an existential threat came to the fore.
This is often referred to as the “Japan option” — after another country that has made significant investments in peaceful nuclear energy without developing key expertise to produce a nuclear weapon or its corresponding delivery systems. Like Japan, Iran’s technological sophistication, its access to uranium and plutonium, and its experience launching satellites and missiles lend credence to the argument that it could theoretically build a nuclear weapon. But even after doing so, a weapon would require at a minimum one full year to complete — and American intelligence would almost certainly detect such efforts.
Nuclear latency does not violate Iran’s international obligations, but it does arguably provide the Islamic Republic with a geostrategic equalizer in a region that America has dominated for decades.During my tenure at the State Department, I heard numerous alternative explanations: Iran’s nuclear problem will stunt the growth of nascent and future democracies in the region, destroy the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, cause Iran’s Arab neighbors to lean toward Tehran, and spark nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East.
Some of these concerns hold merit, others are more far-fetched. But all of them fall under the umbrella of a larger concern — I’d argue America’s primary concern — regarding Iran’s nuclear program: A nuclear-capable Iran will enable the emergence of a regional power that fundamentally rejects the notion of a “Pax Americana” for the Middle East.
And therein lies the rub: Iran will not enter into the regional security framework as it exists today, and the United States will not change the existing framework to accommodate Iranian preferences and goals. At face value, this seemingly zero-sum game of chicken puts Washington and Tehran on a collision course that can only end in war unless one side blinks.
The saving grace, which prevents this very real scenario from becoming a forgone conclusion, is that to date, diplomacy has not really been tried. There has been one 45-minute bilateral meeting between the United States and Iran over Obama’s four years in office. This does not constitute a real diplomatic effort.
Embarking upon a sustained diplomatic process on Iran’s nuclear program will not solve the larger U.S.-Iran conflict. But it can serve as an important foundation from which dialogue can continue on other equally important issues.
2013 and Beyond
In the current climate, both Washington and Tehran have avoided making meaningful compromises, and instead have continued a dangerous cycle of escalation. As both sides push tensions ever higher, the reality is that neither side has gained an upper hand — nor do they have time on their side.
In this high-stakes game of chicken, American and Iranian decision-makers are running out of time. Both sides are nearing a critical point, after which delaying the inevitable choice between military action and compromise is no longer tenable. The year 2013 may very well be that critical point.
So what can be done differently this time around? Both Washington and Tehran should study the incomplete diplomatic process of the past four years and adjust their respective approaches. Four such lessons stand out.
First, the United States and Iran must talk directly. Negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (referred to as the P5+1) are not enough. What is largely a U.S.-Iran conflict has become increasingly bogged down with numerous stakeholders at the table. Iran has refused bilateral diplomacy with the United States since October 2009, but there are ways to get the Iranians to agree.
One such way would be for Washington to expand the agenda of private, bilateral talks. Iran has stated its interest in going beyond the most difficult issue on the table — its nuclear program — and discussing additional regional security issues such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as human rights. America has preferred to keep the focus solely on nuclear issues, but this has only exacerbated each of these respective crises.
Discussing these issues is not tantamount to accepting linkages between them. By separating the settings for these two conversations, Washington will get the crucial bilateral channel without further convoluting the nuclear talks.
Second, the United States must come to grips with the fact that some sanctions must be lifted. For nearly a full calendar year, the P5+1 has made its negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran crystal clear: Iran must cap its uranium enrichment at the 5 percent level, ship its stockpile of higher-enriched uranium to a third-party country, and scrap its deeply buried uranium-enrichment facility. But what Iran would get in return remains up in the air — the P5+1 has been vague on the package of incentives it would offer to reciprocate such concessions.
A feasible solution is to match verifiable Iranian limitations on uranium enrichment with a lifting of Europe’s existing oil embargo. This would add time to the negotiation clock and allow the necessary political space for diplomacy to run its course. Privately, European diplomats note that they await a signal from the United States on whether to begin seriously considering an end to the embargo. If the Obama administration approves, there is unlikely to be serious resistance — but the EU will not act without prior American acquiescence.
Third, the U.S. must avoid issuing ultimatums. After four years of pressure-based policies, many in Washington have learned a valuable lesson about diplomacy with Tehran: Pressing the Islamic Republic to give a quick yes usually results in it saying no. Unfortunately, some still insist on approaching the U.S.-Iran conflict with the “take it or leave it” approach that has consistently failed to bear fruit. The latest installment in this line of thinking says that we should offer to discuss all outstanding issues with Iran — but if they reject our first such offer, we start a war.
Such ultimatums represent a self-fulfilling prophecy. While the United States should consider broadening the agenda for talks with Iran, no such diplomatic process can be expected to succeed on the first try. If the Iranians presented any such ultimatum to the United States, Obama would rightly reject it and see it as an attempt to justify Iranian intransigence. Similarly, Tehran — and the world — will view any U.S. ultimatum as an attempt to create a path toward war.
Finally, the United States must be willing to play the long game. This is a marathon, not a sprint: An institutionalized enmity that has taken over three decades to build will not be undone over the course of a few meetings. Success will only come if diplomats place a premium on patience and long-term progress rather than quick fixes. Diplomacy is hard, but one can never predict where discussions will lead once they have started.
Naturally, it takes two to tango. No diplomatic process can guarantee success, and it remains unclear whether Iran will reciprocate American overtures. Tehran must show greater transparency, flexibility, and reconcile itself to the reality that, at the end of the day, its nuclear program will have limitations.
But if peace is the metric of success, then diplomacy provides a better guarantee than war. Obama can best capitalize on the opportunity of his second term — and avoid the mistakes of his predecessors — by appreciating the limits of American military prowess, and placing his confidence in the power of American diplomacy.