To avoid war with Iran, Obama must change his tone and strike a deal

Israel warns time is running out to stop Iran's nuclear program. If the US wants to avoid military strikes on Iran, it must stop talking out of both sides of its mouth – offering carrots and sticks. As new talks are planned, its policy must instead acknowledge Iran's culture and political realities.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as President Obama speaks during their meeting March 5 at the White House in Washington. Tensions between Israel and Iran have been escalating over Iran's refusal to halt its nuclear program. These op-ed contributors argue for a shift in US policy away from 'carrot and stick' to diplomacy that satisfies both American and Iranian concerns.

If the US wants to avoid military strikes on Iran and still wants a diplomatic settlement for the nuclear dispute with the Islamic Republic, Washington must stop talking out of both sides of its mouth. 

As world powers move toward new talks with Iran, the US must abandon its delusion that the dual track approach – offering simultaneous carrots and sticks – will work with Tehran. It must instead adopt a more pragmatic approach that is sensitive to both the Iranian cultural sentiments and political realities. In particular, the US must appreciate the fact that in Iran, right or wrong, national pride is more important than national interest.

Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have frequently condemned the tone of American officials as disrespectful and derogatory. They are particularly annoyed by the terms “carrot and stick” as they are applied to the “donkey” in Iran. This sense of national pride is reinforced by the Iranian Islamic culture of resistance to outside pressure.

President Obama’s televised message to Iran in 2009 called for a “new beginning,” and such a fresh start could break the deadlock if it were not accompanied by simultaneous accusations of “terror.” Tehran viewed the message as displaying the carrot and stick policy. The Supreme Leader Khamanei immediately attacked Mr. Obama saying, “It is not understandable that Obama congratulates the Iranian new year, but, at the same time, accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and efforts to gain access to nuclear weapons.” Mr. Khamanei has reminded the West, that Iran “hates threat and enticement.”

Mistrust plays a powerful role in the US-Iran conflict. It is no wonder that Iranian hardliners hold that once Tehran gives in to Washington’s pressures and halts its nuclear program, the US would then use issues such as human rights and terrorism to impose even more draconian sanctions. Islamic leaders’ perceive that a US victory on the nuclear issue could boost US confidence and encourage it to aggressively use sanctions to bring about regime change.

Contrary to the popular perspective in the West, the Iranians will not bow to the pressure policy; it will only lead to non-communication and block the road to meaningful negotiations. Under these conditions, an accidental or intentional war becomes even more likely. As former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has put it, “the more you lean towards compulsion, the more the choice becomes war if it doesn’t work.”

The US must adjust its policy along the following key lines. First, it should abandon the terms of carrot and stick as well as the language of threat and intimidation, replacing them with a respectful tone. Second, Washington must abandon the “all-options-are-on-the-table” mantra, replacing it with a policy of negotiations that put all parties on an equal basis.

Third, the US can build trust with Iran by supporting a nuclear-free Middle East. While critics would label such a policy stand unrealistic and such a regional agreement far-fetched, it may be in the best interests of both Israel and Iran. Indeed many obstacles stand in its way, but working out a monitored agreement where both Israel and Iran give up nuclear weapons capacity in some way would protect both countries and deescalate a standoff that boils hotter by the moment. The US supporting such a working move could bring Israel and Iran into an indirect, if not direct, overdue dialogue.

Insisting on zero-enrichment for Iran seems to have already become unrealistic. Instead, the US should now focus on preventing Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium, and to do so, the International Atomic Energy Agency must put Iran’s nuclear sites under strict and intrusive monitoring.

In fact, Iran is likely to accept this condition, and it may even accept a partial suspension of uranium enrichment altogether – as long as the perceived “bullying” policy is abandoned. Agreeing to such a measure lets the Iranian regime save face (it was not forced into abandoning a nuclear program it swore to continue) and also satisfies American concerns over Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons.

Hooshang Amirahmadi is a professor and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. He is also president of the American Iranian Council. Shahir Shahidsaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist. He writes primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs.

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