As the Obama administration prepares to resume multi-party talks with Iran, it should remember that a key test of the leadership of a great power is whether it can reach its foreign policy goals by diplomacy rather than war. The Bush administration failed that test twice. With American forces still tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the world economy still wobbly from the financial crisis, the Obama administration cannot afford to fail this test in the case of Iran.
The White House must not pursue a strategy that makes war with Iran more likely. Consider the dilemma: on one hand, the president is being pressured to take more aggressive action from a growing chorus of hawks who argue that the United States or Israel should act; either way, the consequences of war for US interests would be disastrous (for more on the hawks, see Robert Dreyfuss’s "The Hawks Call for War Against Iran," in this issue).
On the other hand, the strategy of coercive diplomacy, including an unconditional demand that Iran stop the enrichment of uranium, shows little promise, despite the administration’s success in gaining international support for strengthened sanctions. As the recent WikiLeaks material on Iran reveals, the administration never consistently pursued an engagement strategy; it did just enough to be able to argue that it tried before moving to a policy of sanctions and other pressures, which show little sign of working.
By issuing an ultimatum to Iran with no clear plan should Tehran call its bluff, Washington has not only committed a fundamental diplomatic blunder; it has boxed itself in politically, strengthening the hawks. At some point, the White House could find itself trapped between taking military action and coping with the far-ranging crisis that would result from an Israeli attack.
It is critical that the administration open up its policy to more constructive options, and the resumption of multi-party talks is a good occasion to do so. The administration is reportedly preparing a new version of its October 2009 fuel swap proposal, which was shelved last year. It would be a mistake to try to force Iran to accept a tougher version of that scheme. The goal of a more demanding approach would presumably be to portray Iran as the recalcitrant party, thereby building support for a new round of even tougher sanctions.
That could look like a shrewd maneuver to win international support for sanctions, but the value of more sanctions is dubious when considered in light of the implications for peace and stability in the Middle East. Sanctions may indeed be causing discomfort in Iran, but the idea that they will compel concessions underestimates the importance to the broad Iranian polity, including much of the opposition, of the country’s right to develop a nuclear program. That right—spelled out under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Tehran is a signatory—is defined by Iran as the right to enrich uranium on its own soil.