Just as Nixon went to China, should Obama go to Iran?

World powers, and the US in particular, need a game-changer to move Iran to a cooperative stance concerning its nuclear program, a few analysts argue. Such an Obama overture to Iran is a provocative idea, they say, but the alternative may be military confrontation.

Stanislav Filippov/AP
World powers began their fourth round of high-level talks with Iranian officials on Tuesday, aiming to stop Islamic regime's nuclear program from making atomic weapons despite widespread doubts that the stepping-stone meeting will yield a final deal.

In the 34 years since its revolution, Iran has marked key gains in the Middle East and pursued a nuclear program that shows little signs of slowing, despite a barrage of Western economic sanctions. Is it time for the United States to switch course and make a Nixon-to-China move vis a vis the Islamic republic?

That provocative idea, at the center of a new book by two American experts on Iran, is raising eyebrows in Washington even as a new round of talks between world powers and Iran over Tehran’s advancing uranium-enrichment program began Tuesday.

The talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France) plus Germany, offered few initial glimmers of progress toward defusing a crisis careening toward confrontation.

The world powers offered Iran limited sanctions relief if it ceases to enrich uranium to 20 percent – a level of purity that can quickly be further refined to produce weapons-grade fuel. Iran, in turn, pledged to make a counteroffer at Day 2 of talks on Wednesday.

But with optimism for the talks low, some experts say the world powers, and principally the US, must come up with a much bigger game-changer than a modest reduction of sanctions if they are to move Iran – and perhaps to avoid another Middle East war as early as this summer.

“You could have a deal on the nuclear issue within weeks if the US accepted a certain level of safeguarded enrichment,” says Flynt Leverett, a former director for Middle East affairs in the Bush administration National Security Council (NSC) and professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. But that “would basically mean accepting the Islamic republic [of Iran]” as a legitimate power, he adds – something Mr. Leverett advocates.

Leverett, who with his wife, Georgetown University professor Hillary Mann Leverett, recently published “Going to Tehran,” says the US president ultimately will have to pull off something that “parallels the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China” in 1972 and “accept Iran and [it] having an independent foreign policy.”

President Obama has vowed to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon, while ally Israel – which Mr. Obama will visit in March – insists that Iran on its current trajectory may well have assembled the stockpile of enriched uranium and other elements permitting a “break-out” to a rapid assembly of a nuclear bomb by this summer.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium is bringing it closer to the “red line” that the Israeli leader has warned could trigger military strikes against Iranian nuclear installations. 

Iran continues to say that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenai repeating that nuclear weapons are immoral. But Iran also vows never to bargain away its uranium enrichment program nor to bow to the West’s stiff economic sanctions.

US options in this context appear to be extremely limited. Earlier this month Vice President Joe Biden repeated Obama’s offer – first made in the president’s 2009 inaugural address – of direct talks with Tehran. But Mr. Biden, speaking at an international security conference in Munich, said the Iranians would have to be prepared to address a specific agenda.

“We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise,” Biden said, according to news reports.

The Iranian nuclear crisis will never be resolved without some resolution of the Washington-Tehran standoff, say some experts on the region. But others, including several Republican hawks, warn that the Iranians would likely drag out any talks with Washington even as they continue making nuclear progress.

Other forces in the US, including some Iranian opposition groups, would virulently oppose any American overture that appears to legitimize a regime they believe most Iranians do not support.

At the same Munich conference as Biden, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said he would not oppose direct talks but held out little hope they would produce anything. “We’ve seen this movie before,” he said.

“We should learn the lessons of history, and that is that no matter what the talks are, if you still have the fundamental problem – and the fundamental problem is Iranians’ commitment to acquisition of a nuclear weapon – it doesn’t matter to a significant degree,” Senator McCain said.

Ms. Leverett, speaking from her experience as part of the US team that met with Iranians in the early years of the Afghanistan war, says the US has learned that “we can negotiate with Khamenai” and the regime he heads.

The Leveretts answered questions recently at an event at the Center for the National Interest, a realist foreign-policy think tank in Washington.

Any opening to Iran will be more difficult now because of America’s damaged standing in the Middle East after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, says Mr. Leverett, adding that the NSC under Bush quashed his efforts to disseminate his views on engaging Iran. 

“America’s position in the region is in free fall,” he says, adding that a third military intervention in the region would be “disastrous” for the US.

But “coming to terms with Iran’s Islamic republic” could mark the beginning of a turnaround for the US in the region, Mr. Leverett suggests. President Richard “Nixon’s realigning of the US approach to China saved the US position in Asia.” A similar approach now by Onama toward Iran, he says, “could do the same.”

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