from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

How To Talk To Tehran

February 22, 2012

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Richard Haass and I have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in which we outline a strategy for U.S. diplomacy with Iran. The basics are simple: Neither war nor containment is an attractive option. Moreover, with economic and military pressure on Tehran rising, Iranian leaders may be gaining greater incentives to do a deal, and the United States may be gaining more leverage. At the same time, there’s little chance that the Iranian regime could give up enrichment entirely and survive; meanwhile, on the U.S. side, no deal is worthwhile if it leaves Iran too close to the bomb. We thus outline a mix of inspections and physical limits on the Iranian program that the United States should put on the table; if Iran accepts, the newest sanctions (including impending ones) should be dialed back. Until that happens, the current sanctions should stay in place, and the ones coming down the pike should proceed apace.

Many have reacted to this proposal by arguing that the United States shouldn’t tolerate any enrichment on Iranian soil. But the most interesting response we’ve gotten so far comes from the other side: is there really any chance that Iran would accept this sort of agreement?

The only honest answer is that we don’t know. The value of a U.S. offer to dial back the newest sanctions depends on how much pain they’re causing in Tehran, something that’s impossible to measure. But it’s entirely plausible that that pain in large and growing. The only way to find out if the pressure is enough to pay real dividends is to try.