More pragmatism on Iran on the op-ed pages of the N.Y. Times. Today’s common sense comes from Flynt and Hillary Leverett, who pose a persuasive argument that anything short of a comprehensive diplomatic initiative simply cannot work regarding Iran:
TEHRAN’S disclosure that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qum has derailed the Obama administration’s already faltering efforts to engage with Iran. The United States will now cling even more tightly to the futile hope that international pressure and domestic instability will induce major changes in Iranian decision-making.
The columnists argue that the Obama policy is little more than warmed over Bushism and that it threatens to fail because Obama has surrounded himself with hawks like Dennis Ross, who betray the very foreign policy principles the candidate espoused before he was elected:
Because President Obama assembled a national security team that, for the most part, did not share his early vision for American-Iranian rapprochement, his administration never built a strong public case for engagement. The prospect of engagement is still treated largely as a channel for “rewarding” positive Iranian actions and “punishing” problematic behavior — precisely what Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate, criticized so eloquently about President George W. Bush’s approach.
At the UN General Assembly last week, President Obama used language reminiscent of Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil” to identify Iran and North Korea as the main threats to international peace…
Here is the money quote, what Obama must do if he wishes to retrieve his wavering Iran policy from the maw of defeat:
The Obama administration’s lack of diplomatic seriousness goes beyond clumsy tactics; it reflects an inadequate understanding of the strategic necessity of constructive American-Iranian relations. If an American president believed that such a relationship was profoundly in our national interests — as President Richard Nixon judged a diplomatic opening to China — he would demonstrate acceptance of the Islamic Republic, even as problematic Iranian behavior continued in the near term.
After taking office in 1969, Nixon directed the C.I.A. to stop covert operations in Tibet and ordered the Navy to stop its regular patrols of the Taiwan Strait even while China was supplying weapons to kill American soldiers in Vietnam. President Obama has had several opportunities to send analogous signals to Tehran — such as ending Bush-era covert programs against Iran — but has punted.
…The Obama administration’s focus on mustering support for effective economic penalties is delusional.
…The Obama administration may hope that even an ineffective quest for “crippling” sanctions will hold the line against those in Washington and elsewhere advocating a military strike on Iran’s weapons program. That is sadly reminiscent of our experiences at the State Department and the National Security Council in the Bush administration, when officials who opposed the Iraq war championed “smart sanctions” and tighter containment of Saddam Hussein’s regime as the alternative course. Such calls did nothing to change Mr. Hussein’s calculations, and were overwhelmed by the exaggerated allegations of Iraq’s renewed efforts to build nuclear weapons.
INSTEAD of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.
On that basis, America and Iran would forge a comprehensive framework for security as well as economic cooperation — something that Washington has never allowed the five-plus-one group to propose. Within that framework, the international community would work with Iran to develop its civil nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities on Iranian soil, in a transparent manner rather than demanding that Tehran prove a negative — that it’s not developing weapons. A cooperative approach would not demonize Iran for political relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah, but would elicit Tehran’s commitment to work toward peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.
This column makes clear that Obama’s policy is running off the rails, as previous Democratic presidents have (notably JFK with Cuba and Jimmy Carter with Afghanistan) who came to power talking pragmatism and diplomatic engagement and turned to force and bluster after a U.S. opponent “took advantage” of the president’s reasonableness. Obama is being led by the nose by hawks like Ross and others.
He needs the type of sweeping-clean that the Leveretts advocate here if he is regain the initiative. Their proposals of course would involve tremendous risk because Republicans are looking for every chink in the president’s armor. They would bellow at the “soft” approach advocated by these analysts. But the choices are a slow, strangled almost certain failure of U.S. policy (cf. Bush in Iraq) or a politically risky comprehensive approach advocating engagement over intimidation, that might yield constructive results. The current policy is more of the same warmed over containment attempted by Bush in the past with resounding failure. It cannot work in the long or short-run.