Whether It’s Romney or Obama, U.S. Will Consider Direct Talks with Iran

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ATTA KENARE / AFP / Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends a press conference in Tehran on Oct. 2, 2012

Here’s a little secret about the future of U.S. Iran policy, regardless of who wins the presidential election: direct talks between Washington and Tehran may be inevitable — notwithstanding the Obama Administration’s insistence, in response to media reports last weekend, that no such talks are currently planned or the denials by Iran that it wants to talk. The reason that the winner on Nov. 6 may face little alternative but to try direct talks with Iran for the first time since 1979, is quite simply that both President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have made clear their desire to avoid taking the U.S. into a third elective war in a Muslim country in the space of a decade.

“It is essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran,” Romney said in Monday’s foreign policy debate, “and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” His leverage of choice: “crippling sanctions” with the threat of military action as a last resort should Iran cross a red line toward developing “nuclear-weapons capability.” That’s broadly the same policy the Obama Administration has followed. Asked to differentiate himself, in the debate, Romney didn’t even raise the ambiguous question of where to draw the red line. (Obama sets his red line for action at Iran moving to acquire a nuclear weapon; Romney uses the phrase nuclear-weapons capability — although it’s not exactly clear whether this means the capability to build nuclear weapons, which Iran perhaps already has in latent form, or the capability to rapidly assemble and deploy nuclear warheads atop missiles.) Instead Romney simply insisted he’d have imposed tighter sanctions sooner.

According to Politico, just last month Romney told reporters on his campaign plane that he does “not believe that in the final analysis we will have to use military action” against Iran. “I can’t take that option off the table — it must be something which is known by the Iranians as a possible tool to be employed to prevent them from becoming nuclear. But I certainly hope that we can prevent any military action from having to be taken,” he said.

(MORE: Obama’s Iran Policy: Why Diplomacy Remains the Likely Course)

In the same conversation, he was asked whether he concurred with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that a red line be drawn at Iran accumulating sufficient medium-enriched uranium that could, potentially, be reprocessed into a single bomb’s worth of high-enriched matériel. (A red line far in advance of the Obama Administration’s.) Romney cited a recent phone conversation with Netanyahu but declined to specifically endorse the Israeli red line. “We did not go into enough, into the kind of detail that would define precisely where that red line would be,” he said.

Given the epic dangers of starting an unprovoked war with Iran, it’s difficult to see Romney having any more enthusiasm for a “military option” than Obama does. Beside the risks of an open-ended and protracted conflict that puts the world economy at risk because of potential impacts on oil prices, U.S. defense and intelligence chiefs and many of their Israeli counterparts warn that even a successful military strike that set back Iran’s timetable would remove all constraints and incentive to refrain from building nuclear weapons. Like Saddam Hussein after the Israelis bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, the Iranians would likely respond by immediately launching an intensive covert bomb program. Military action, a number of top U.S. defense officials have warned, would make a nuclear-armed Iran more, not less, likely.

But the problem with the sanctions favored by both the Obama Administration and the Romney campaign is that, while they are inflicting steadily rising economic pain felt across Iranian society, they remain unlikely to bring Iran to the point of capitulation. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei would urgently like to see sanctions eased or lifted, but the consensus among Iran analysts is that he’s unlikely to simply surrender on the nuclear issue in order to ease the economic pain. Absent some mutually acceptable compromise formula, therefore, the trajectory of the current policy could easily lead to war.

(MORE: New Sanctions, Old Postures as U.S.-Israel-Iran Stalemate Drags On)

While he may be open to a genuine compromise, Khamenei can’t be seen to surrender on “nuclear rights” for which Iran has fought and suffered growing isolation over the past decade, notes University of Hawaii Iran scholar Farideh Farhi. “With the draconian economic measures imposed on Iran in the past year, the [domestic] political terrain makes quite impossible the acceptance of a deal that does not bring about some immediate, palpable, even if small, relaxation of the sanctions regime,” says Farhi. Imagining sanctions as an alternative to military action may be misleading, she argues, because Khamenei believes their purpose is regime change, and mounting economic pain could prompt the regime to become more reckless in its effort to break out of the noose.

The problem with the existing package of sanctions and talks is that Tehran is not seeing a sufficiently attractive offer — nor even a clearly defined set of steps required to change the dynamic, while Iran’s leaders have chosen to put their economy on a war footing to absorb the pain, as if they have no alternative. Asked in Tuesday’s debate what would constitute an acceptable deal, President Obama said “our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place.”

That answer may have tracked with campaign requirements, but Iran won’t even negotiate on the basis of a demand that it “give up its nuclear program.” And the premise of the past five years of multilateral European-led negotiations has been a recognition that Tehran is not going to simply heed U.N. resolutions but may nonetheless be open to agreements that satisfy key international concerns about its program.

“In the short term, the hostility of Western nations is likely to make it more difficult for Iranian moderates to rein in the nuclear program,” warns Rolf Ekeus, former head of the U.N. inspection team in Iraq, writing together with Stanford University’s Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer. “And in the longer term, Tehran will increasingly question whether Iran ought to remain within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the face of economic sanctions, violence and isolation. Without eyes on the ground, moreover, it will grow ever more difficult to assess Tehran’s actual progress toward the nuclear weapons threshold. The world could miss the emergence of an Iranian breakout capability, or else blunder into another unjustified war.”

MORE: Long-Term Uncertainty Remains in Nuclear Talks with Iran

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.”

(MORE: Red Lines, Deadlines and End Games: Netanyahu Turns Up Iran Heat on Obama)

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.”

(MORE: First Round of Iran Nuclear Talks Highlights Obama’s Tough Spot in an Election Year)

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.

MORE: Diplomacy with Iran: Hey, What’s the Hurry?

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