Ekeus and Braut-Hegghammer argue that the road to war in Iraq began when the Clinton Administration made clear that it would not allow sanctions to be lifted until Saddam had been forced from power, giving him no incentive to cooperate. Saddam may even have believed he was safer if his enemies believed he had WMD. And they see a similar trajectory unfolding in Iran, whose level of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency is declining and which remains unlikely to make unilateral concessions.
Pragmatic voices on the Iranian side complain that the West has failed to show any interest in Tehran’s proposals to cap uranium enrichment at levels necessary for energy production in exchange for lifting sanctions. (Western officials and analysts counter that Iran hasn’t concretely put forward any plausible plans of this nature.) Wherever the fault lies, however, it’s plain that as long as the sides are talking past each other, they are traveling down a path that ends either with one side or the other backing down, or with an armed confrontation. President Obama even warned on Tuesday that the “clock is ticking” and that “we’re not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere.”
Still, if either he or Romney also want to avoid a war, they will very likely find themselves forced to consider options that go beyond sanctions and the P5+1 talks. The former point man on Iran for the State Department under George W. Bush, Nicholas Burns, warned recently that the standoff is on a path to confrontation, likening it to a slow-motion Cuban missile crisis. To avoid stumbling recklessly into war, Burns recommended three steps:
1. “The winner of November’s election should … create a direct channel between Washington and Tehran and begin an extended one-on-one negotiation with all issues on the table,” Burns wrote. “The United States should aim for the sustained and substantive talks it has not had in the three decades since American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran.”
2. “The United States must for the first time put far-reaching proposals on the table if diplomacy and negotiations are to succeed,” he advised, adding that “the United States must be ready to compromise by offering imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon.” Such talks, Burns said, would have to occur in parallel to the multilateral nuclear talks of the P5+1, which has gone nowhere.
3.”The United States needs to take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give us more independence and protect Israel’s core interests at the same time,” Burns advised. “We should reaffirm our determination to protect Israel’s security. But … it is not in America’s interest to remain hostage to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s increasingly swift timetable for action. We need the freedom to explore negotiations with Iran on our own slower timeline before we consider force.”
Burns’ “all issues on the table” formulation recognizes that the P5+1 framework focuses narrowly, and largely technically, on Iran’s nuclear program. But the extent to which that nuclear program is an international security concern is not because of Iran’s technical capacity to produce weapons, which currently is considerably less than that of Japan or Brazil. Instead, it’s the underlying strategic conflict between Iran and the West that makes its nuclear capacity and intent a matter of concern, and Burns’ proposal appears premised on seeking nuclear compromise as part of managing that strategic rivalry. Iran’s persistent demand for recognition of its “nuclear rights” — particularly the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes — suggests it will require more than Tehran has been offered until now to tempt it into a deal. And his third proviso — which is perhaps the most politically challenging — notes the impact on Washington’s calculations of the Netanyahu government’s persistent efforts to limit the time-frame and terms of diplomacy with Iran. Not surprising, on Sunday, the Israeli Prime Minister responded to reports of alleged new talks with skepticism, warning that Iran would use talks “to drag its feet and to gain time.”
Campaign sparring rarely translates into operational foreign policy, but whichever candidate wins the U.S. presidency, he’s likely to encounter a reality in which the standoff is headed down a path on which the line between sanctions and war becomes blurred. Even if war eventually became inevitable, both men, as President, would likely first try a new, more urgent and more direct diplomatic track.