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Why Talk to Iran?

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
June 2, 2010
Project Syndicate

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June 12 marks the first anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as Iran's president. Despite the Iranian opposition's continuing efforts to contest the outcome and advance political liberalization, Ahmadinejad and his allies have largely succeeded in consolidating their hold on power by using brute force to repress the reform movement. Hopes that a popular uprising might topple the regime have fizzled.

Meanwhile, the crisis over Iran's nuclear program is escalating. The Iranian regime continues to defy the international community's efforts to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. In response, US President Barack Obama's administration has been working through the United Nations Security Council to impose tougher economic sanctions.  Nonetheless, Iran edges toward mastering the process of enriching uranium to weapons-grade purity. The closer Iran gets to developing a nuclear weapon, the greater the likelihood that Israel, with or without US help, might attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

The Iranian government's intransigence, its blatant efforts to mislead nuclear inspectors, its odious calls for the destruction of Israel, its brutal repression of political opponents – all provide good reason for Obama to slam the door shut on dialogue. With diplomacy having failed to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, critics of engagement charge, it is time to resort to coercion before Iran crosses the nuclear Rubicon. A rising chorus of voices now forswears engagement with Iran's rulers, insisting that it is time for the regime to go.

But closing off dialogue with Iran would be a precipitous and dangerous mistake. As my new book, How Enemies Become Friends, confirms, even fierce adversaries can settle their differences through negotiation. For four compelling reasons, the US and its allies should keep the door open to dialogue until the eleventh hour.

First, tighter sanctions make sense only as a diplomatic tool, not as a blunt instrument of coercion. The new sanctions simply are not severe enough to intimidate Iran into submission, and more restrictive ones would not pass muster within the Security Council. Accordingly, if tougher sanctions prove to be useful, they will do so by confronting Iran with a united diplomatic front, thereby encouraging its government to make a deal in order to end the country's isolation. New sanctions are warranted, but as a complement, not an alternative, to diplomacy.

Second, the costs of abandoning diplomacy are so high that continued engagement makes sense even as Iran refuses to budge. To give up on diplomacy is to leave the international community with two ugly options: living with a nuclear Iran or carrying out a preventive military strike against Iran's nuclear installations.

Should Iran possess the ultimate weapon, it might embrace a new restraint in its foreign policy; nuclear-weapons states, precisely because they confront the prospect of nuclear retaliation, have historically tread with caution. But the Iranian regime is no ordinary government; it may not adhere to the normal practices of nuclear restraint. Even if it does, a nuclear Iran may trigger an arms race in the region and embolden an Iranian government that already supports extremist movements throughout the Middle East. An American security umbrella over the Persian Gulf and Israel might calm nerves, but it would do little to counter increased Iranian support of Islamic radicals.

A military strike would likely have worse consequences. Even if a strike was an operational success, it would only set back Iran's nuclear program by several years – while giving the regime a new incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent and build better hidden and defended nuclear facilities. In response to an attack, Iran might well seek to obstruct shipping in the Persian Gulf, potentially triggering oil shortages and soaring prices.

Iran could also intensify efforts to fund and arm insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, imperiling both countries. And it could launch attacks on US, European, and Israeli targets on a global basis. Such prospects make continued diplomacy, however elusive the prospects of success, nothing short of mandatory.

The third reason for pursuing dialogue is that factional infighting and political intrigue within the Iranian regime make for considerable political fluidity. Admittedly, turmoil in Tehran brings inconstancy to Iran's foreign policy, warranting caution about the prospects for a meaningful diplomatic breakthrough. But internal jockeying for power also means that a coalitional alignment favoring a negotiated settlement just might fall into place.

Ahmadinejad himself, after all, late last year voiced enthusiasm for a Western proposal to break the logjam by exporting Iran's uranium for processing abroad, only to reverse course soon thereafter.  Then last month, he reversed course again, working with Brazil and Turkey to craft a watered-down version of the original proposal. Ahmadinejad may be bobbing and weaving.  But his mercurial ways make it plausible that he may find it politically advantageous to strike a serious bargain on the nuclear issue.  Just in case, the diplomatic door should remain ajar.

Finally, even as stalemate continues on Iran's uranium enrichment, continued engagement may offer a roundabout means of arriving at a bargain on the nuclear issue. Dialogue with the US could focus on areas, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the two parties share a measure of common ground. Joint efforts to combat drug trafficking in Afghanistan, for example, could help dilute the mutual antagonism and distrust that contribute to blockage on the nuclear front. Iran remains several years away from mastering the technology needed to build nuclear weapons, which provides time to search for such diplomatic openings.

With Iran having spurned Obama's offers of compromise, it is tempting for the US administration to turn its back on dialogue. But the stakes are too high to abandon engagement. Even with new sanctions in the offing, dialogue still offers the best prospect for peacefully resolving what may be the world's most dangerous dispute.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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