Ticking Clock

Iran, Try Peace or Get War

Now may be the last chance for the U.S. and Iran to try serious diplomacy, not just smiles—or start seriously worrying about war, warns Leslie H. Gelb.

Faced with the biggest opportunity of his presidency—the possibility of turning around relations with Iran—Obama has got his first move half right. He’s decided to “test” Tehran’s new charm offensive, and not just offer a cold shoulder.

You might say that’s no big deal. You’re wrong.

Most of Washington’s closest allies in the Mideast don’t want any testing; they just want to reject everything emanating from Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani and demand Tehran’s capitulation.

This fight against testing Iran’s intentions is dumb and dangerous. It’s dumb because no one can possibly know just how much the new Tehran government is willing to compromise if we don’t test them. Second, it’s dangerous because without trying serious give-and-take diplomacy, the United States and Israel will be back on the track to war with Iran, and soon.

But Obama has to test himself as well and put some smart compromises on the table to jump-start serious negotiations. According to administration officials, however, he hasn’t gotten close to this approach yet.

To this point, he’s exchanged nice letters with Iran’s new, reform-minded Rouhani and plans on at least smiling at him in United Nations corridors. Obama’s pledge today at the U.N. to pursue new diplomacy through the P5+1 is a good start, but not nearly enough.

In their U.N. tap dance, Mr. Obama made nicer noises than Mr. Rouhani and was willing to be seen with a reluctant Mr. Rouhani. The Iranian stiffed every opportunity to be photographed with his American counterpart. Hawks on both sides should have delighted in most of the rhetoric, even though both concluded with enticing diplomatic tidbits and words of mutual respect. On Wednesday, Rouhani helped atmospherics a bit by declaring Hitler’s holocaust of the Jews a “crime.” But neither felt free enough from domestic critics to move toward the specifics on which this mutual opening will rise or fall.

To see what compromises Iran’s leader might make, Obama has to figure out what compromises the U.S. can safely offer. If Obama simply repeats America’s long-standing demands for Tehran’s across-the-board capitulation, Rouhani will respond in kind. So, the U.S. side has to offer viable proposals, i.e., ones that have a chance at eliciting a positive Iranian response—proposals that take Iran’s legitimate interests as well as America’s into account.

To demand that Iran abandon anything and everything Americans don’t like will result only in certain rejection by Tehran’s new leaders, even if they truly wanted genuine compromises and peace. Their right-wing war hawks seem even crazier than ours. They are a nasty and viciously anti-American bunch who sponsor terrorism and repress their own people. Rouhani can’t ignore them—any more than Obama can thumb his nose at the neoconservatives, Israelis, and worried Gulf state allies.

To America’s hawks, talk of reconciliation is delusional. They say there’s no difference between Rouhani and his hawks. Well, our know-it-alls weren’t preaching that when Rouhani was running for the presidency. Then, they proclaimed the hawks would never let him win because he might be a moderate and a reformer. Only once he was elected did they brand him a secret monster. And now American hawks are already gathering steam to ensure failure. For example, key senators are pushing standards for lifting sanctions that Iran won’t possibly meet.

I don’t know what’s going on in Rouhani’s head or what his relationship is with Ayatollah Khamenei. And neither does Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel or his American cohorts.

But it’s useful to recall that 10 years ago, Rouhani was a key figure in the Iranian government and a co-contriver of a memo to President Bush much along the lines of the present series of overtures. The memo came at a time when Iran was actually helping the U.S. cause in Afghanistan. Yes, aiding in the war against the Taliban. The missive was passed to Washington through a Swiss diplomat and rejected without even a response by the Bush team. This spurning was also seen by Tehran against the backdrop of President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, where he called for regime change in Iran. From then on, it was indeed downhill.

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Rouhani has done quite a bit of positive signaling since taking office only weeks ago. This includes releasing a number of jailed regime critics, briefly and tantalizingly opening up the Internet, wishing Jews Happy New Year, backing Syria’s surrendering of chemical weapons, and reiterating the ayatollah’s pledge that Iran would never deploy nuclear weapons. On top of this, he’s made an astonishing appointment as foreign minister—Javad Zarif, recognized widely as a first-rate professional. Now, this is all quite cancelable by Tehran. But it is how parties to disputes begin flagging a change in course and a willingness to compromise. No one, no nation, no leader, comes out of the cold of 34 years of conflict and hatred with proposals for capitulation.

Now, no one is proposing that Washington jump overboard, abandon the threat of military force, or start lifting economic sanctions. Sanctions and threats certainly have played a positive role in bringing about Tehran’s new and more forthcoming look. Don’t doubt that Iran is in great economic pain. There has been a substantial loss of oil revenues, the underpinning of their economy. In addition, Iran can’t use the international banking system to buy and sell. But anyone who knows anything about Iran will tell Obama not to expect Tehran’s new leaders to throw in the towel and simply give America what it demands.

Iran is still plenty strong enough to resist. And continued resistance means a continued and rising threat of war. After all, Obama has pledged to “prevent” Iran from going nuclear, and Tehran continues to edge in that direction. Americans, Gulf States, Israelis—anyone—would be fools not to fear such a war and its consequences.

That’s why it’s essential not just to test Tehran but to test ourselves. There are two halves to a proposal that can protect essential American, Israeli, and allied interests while having a decent chance of acceptance by Iran.

First, we can’t simply insist that Tehran destroy its uranium enrichment capacities. There’s no chance they’ll do it. Tehran will refuse and point to the fact that that their membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty permits them to enrich—under international inspections. They’ll also point to many other states that similarly enrich.

The U.S. should allow Iranian enrichment only up to, say, 3 to 5 percent. And of course this would be backed by the most intrusive inspections agreements. As for more highly enriched uranium in Iran’s stockpile, that would have to be dispatched to other countries and made into harmless medical devices. This arrangement would give Tehran a very limited capacity to jump to nuclear weapons, and certainly leave them no closer to a bomb than the current path. And don’t forget that even if the U.S. struck Iran’s nuclear facilities, it wouldn’t take them long to rebuild them.

In return, Washington would gradually lift sanctions. Obviously, no sanctions would be lifted until Iran takes concrete actions. And it should be understood by Americans and others that if Tehran violates terms, sanctions can and would be readily reimposed.

Second, and equally critical, Washington and Tehran would also begin intensive discussions on Afghanistan, Iraq, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Israel. This is essential because both sides should realize that whatever sound arrangements they might make on nuclear issues could easily collapse over explosions in any of these regions. These hot spots are simply too hot.

To kick this all off, Obama should propose immediate bilateral talks on mutual security concerns. Tehran would explain what we’re doing that troubles them and vice versa. These talks should quickly morph into nuclear and regional negotiations.

This could be one of those moments like Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power in Moscow and opening the door to the end of the Cold War. Let’s see if Obama and Rouhani have the wit, skill, and courage to try.