How Obama could change the game on Iran
If the Iranian people can more clearly see the benefits offered by negotiations, Iran's leaders will be more likely to compromise to get talks going again.
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With the public announcement this weekend of US defensive missile deployment in the Middle East, the saber-rattling appears to have begun.
And as Iran thumbs its nose at the international community, another round of fruitless UN Security Council discussions appear to be in the offing.
We’ve been here before, and we don’t need to carry on like this.
Over the past year, US policy toward Iran has involved conciliatory messages from the president, tepid condemnations of human rights abuses, and participation in six-party talks addressing Iran’s nuclear program.
The elephant in the room is the continued hostility between Iran and the United States that dates back 30 years.
Some of Mr. Obama’s actions on Iran, such as sending a letter to Iran’s supreme leader and delivering a recorded message for the Iranian New Year, may be unprecedented, but they are not groundbreaking. The door to negotiation is said to be open, but it is not open wide enough. In fact, with the focus now solely on punishments resulting from Iran’s intransigence, Obama has yet to make clear to the Iranians what benefits compromise will bring.
Without a game-changing event, it is unlikely that the resumption of six-party talks or current tactics will prevent the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program. The only option envisaged by the US seems to be to impose further sanctions on Iran.
Sanctions – if indeed enacted – would have a limited effect and do not represent a high benchmark for success. They have backfired in the past, inflating hostility and causing Iranians to dig in – and they may do so again. In addition, China, Russia, and others with whom Iran does have regular dialogue have already signaled they are unlikely to sacrifice their economic trade and other interests to pursue strong sanctions.
So if Obama wants to give diplomacy a chance, he must up the ante with a realistic package of incentives for Iran.
A grand bargain
The president could introduce a genuine game changer by offering a concrete proposal to engage in “grand bargain” talks focused on a broad range of issues (regional security, trade and investment, legal claims, cultural exchange, and so forth).
Engaging adversaries in diplomatic negotiations has worked in the past.
Talks with Libya in 2003 resulted in Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s abandonment of his “weapons of mass destruction” program, a renunciation of terrorism, and resumption of diplomatic and economic relations. President Nixon’s dialogue with China in 1972 led to a normalization of relations in 1979 and ongoing economic, cultural, and educational contacts. Deflating hostility and dealing successfully with recalcitrant nations can be done without resorting to regime change.