Is diplomacy with Iran futile?

Experts gathered to debate US policy toward Iran, and then let the audience decide.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Talk: Bush-era diplomat Nicholas Burns (second from r.) speaks in favor of diplomatic overtures toward Iran at a Rockefeller University event. Others present were (l. to r.) Daniel Senor, Liz Cheney, and Kenneth Pollack.

Ask an auditorium full of smart, informed New Yorkers if diplomacy has a prayer of ending Iran's nuclear ambitions and, it turns out, they split evenly into three groups: the yeas, the nays, and the undecideds.

Then offer that same audience 90 minutes of cogent debate from four experts – including Liz Cheney, a State Department official under President Bush and the daughter of one very high-profile former vice president; and Nicholas Burns, a Clinton and Bush diplomat – and positions can shift.

When the debate (motion: "Dip­lo­macy With Iran Is Going Nowhere") ended and audience members punched their keypads in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"-style, 59 percent opposed the motion. Give peace a chance, this audience seemed to say.

The debate, held earlier this month by Intelligence Squared US, was part of a forum that aims to bring a higher level of public discussion to top issues of the day. The audience confronted Iran's failure to respond to President Obama's proposal for unconditional talks, as well as the prospect for war if diplomacy is not at least attempted.

A surprise guest at the debate was the father of the only female debater. Dick Cheney kept mum during the event, but at a dinner afterward, he congratulated the teams for a provocative debate. "If diplomacy can work, of course we should try it," he said. He then added that he didn't think it could, because "our partners" are less intent on preventing a nuclear Iran than on restraining America from using military force.

Here are some of the debate's notable arguments on either side:

YES, Diplomacy beats another war

NO, It takes two to talk, and Iran isn’t

YES, Diplomacy beats another war

Argued by NICHOLAS BURNS, No. 3 diplomat in the Bush administration, and KENNETH POLLACK, Brookings Institution analyst

On diplomacy's record so far:

"It's difficult to say diplomacy with Iran is going nowhere when we haven't started diplomacy…. We've had three decades of a nonrelationship with Iran." – Nicholas Burns

On why diplomacy is a necessary step for winning international backing:

"How do you propose to get tough [international] sanctions without going through diplomacy?" – Kenneth Pollack

"We need to be able to say to the Russians and the Chinese, 'We did what you wanted, we tried diplomacy; now you need to back us.' " – N.B.

"We know diplomacy might not work, but if we give it a shot, it strengthens us for what's ahead." – N.B.

On what to say to Iran:

"The choice we put to the Iranians is simple: You get the thriving economy that the Iranian people want, or you get a nuclear weapon. You don't get both." – K.P.

On alternatives – military strikes, regime change, a Middle East war – and their unpredictable consequences:

"I'm not aware of a scenario [concerning Iran] where the use of force works." – N.B.

"We should leave the use of force on the table. But if we give up [on diplomacy] now, we'll never know the answer [to], 'Was peace possible?' " – N.B.

NO, It takes two to talk, and Iran isn’t

Argued by LIZ CHENEY, former State Department official, and DANIEL SENOR, Bush foreign-policy adviser and spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq

On Iran’s record:

Thirty years of history with the Iranian regime offers no glimmer of hope that "efforts to reach out to them" will succeed. "To say 'Diplomacy has not begun' ignores 30 years of history." – Liz Cheney

On flaws in president Obama’s approach:

"We are not saying no diplomacy, but the current diplomacy is flawed diplomacy." – L.C.

Obama's overtures lack the three elements that might budge a regime resisting negotiation: a guarantee of quick and crippling sanctions if talks fail, a timeline "to prohibit talks from going on and on," and a credible threat of using military force. – L.C.

On the current status with Iran:

After Obama's overtures, "The Iranian government has still not returned the call." – Daniel Senor

On the nature of the Iranian regime:

"If it is a radical theocracy, I'm not sure they can be dissuaded … from having a nuclear bomb." – D.S.

On showing that your debate opponents actually agree with you:

"It's not just Ken [Pollack] who has been involved in failed attempts at diplomacy with the Iranians" – in a quip about Mr. Pollack's book "The Persian Puzzle." "Nick [Burns] and I have had our fair share of it as well."


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