Ironically, the highest levels of the U.S. government have long acknowledged the overall negative impact that sanctions have on U.S.-Iran relations. When asked about U.S. policy toward Iran at a December 2004 press conference, then President George W. Bush responded with a fleeting moment of honesty: "We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran."
Eight years later, the reality described by Bush remains an inconvenient truth. But the Obama administration has continued to slap new sanctions on Iran. That shouldn't come as a surprise -- it's what the United States always does, regardless of the results. Sanctions are a tool that American policymakers know: They know how to add them, intensify them, push them through Congress, and negotiate them bilaterally and at the United Nations.
But here's the bottom line: They've never actually worked. Sanctions are meant to change Iran's strategic calculus to such a degree that the costs of maintaining its current policy trajectory outweigh the benefits -- thus pressuring Iran into "changing its behavior." Rather than capitulate or change course, however, Iran continues to expand and advance its nuclear program.
What's more, punitive measures hurt the people that America ostensibly seeks to help. Banking sanctions, for instance, are having an increasingly harmful impact on innocent Iranians -- humanitarian items such as food and medical exports are being blocked, and Iranian students studying abroad are facing unprecedented difficulties paying the cost of tuition.
The Obama administration has gone out of its way to emphasize that its sanctions are, in fact, working -- but if that were true, why would we need one new round of sanctions after another?
The inherent flaw in America's sanctions-based approach is that the atmosphere of isolation and conflict that they create is precisely one in which Iran's hardline conservatives thrive. Many Iranian decision-makers also see the West's reliance on sanctions, which have proved ineffective for over three decades, as an admission that they lack viable policy alternatives. This reinforces Tehran's belief that regime change is Washington's true goal, and resistance is therefore a prerequisite for survival.
Sanctions may not be a panacea, but they can sharpen Iran's choices and ostensibly provide the U.S. with leverage in negotiations. However, America's unwillingness thus far to offer sanctions relief at the negotiating table has turned sanctions into a blunt instrument.
Although the deep-seated distrust between the United States and Iran has also been heightened by the crisis over Tehran's nuclear program, it is only one of many issues dividing them. However, it remains the top priority for U.S. policymakers working on Iran -- often to the detriment of more important issues, such as the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic. The question remains: Why?
An Iranian nuclear bomb is neither imminent nor a foregone conclusion. The 16 U.S. intelligence agencies judge with high confidence that Iran has conducted no nuclear weapons-related experiments since 2003, that it currently has no nuclear weapons program, and that is has not made the political decision to pursue nuclear weapons. In theory, this provides ample political space for Obama to pursue a sustained process of diplomacy dedicated to ensuring that Iran's nuclear program remains verifiably peaceful.
In practice, however, we often see the opposite from Washington -- self-imposed time limits on diplomacy, unprecedented coercive measures, and sensationalistic journalism about an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon. Why the disconnect? Because at present, Iran is pursuing a strategic middle ground called nuclear latency: It aims to build a nuclear energy program that would allow for the production of a nuclear weapon on short notice if an existential threat came to the fore.
This is often referred to as the "Japan option" -- after another country that has made significant investments in peaceful nuclear energy without developing key expertise to produce a nuclear weapon or its corresponding delivery systems. Like Japan, Iran's technological sophistication, its access to uranium and plutonium, and its experience launching satellites and missiles lend credence to the argument that it could theoretically build a nuclear weapon. But even after doing so, a weapon would require at a minimum one full year to complete -- and American intelligence would almost certainly detect such efforts.
Nuclear latency does not violate Iran's international obligations, but it does arguably provide the Islamic Republic with a geostrategic equalizer in a region that America has dominated for decades. During my tenure at the State Department, I heard numerous alternative explanations: Iran's nuclear problem will stunt the growth of nascent and future democracies in the region, destroy the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, cause Iran's Arab neighbors to lean toward Tehran, and spark nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East.
Some of these concerns hold merit, others are more far-fetched. But all of them fall under the umbrella of a larger concern -- I'd argue America's primary concern -- regarding Iran's nuclear program: A nuclear-capable Iran will enable the emergence of a regional power that fundamentally rejects the notion of a "Pax Americana" for the Middle East.
And therein lies the rub: Iran will not enter into the regional security framework as it exists today, and the United States will not change the existing framework to accommodate Iranian preferences and goals. At face value, this seemingly zero-sum game of chicken puts Washington and Tehran on a collision course that can only end in war unless one side blinks.
The saving grace, which prevents this very real scenario from becoming a forgone conclusion, is that to date, diplomacy has not really been tried. There has been one 45-minute bilateral meeting between the United States and Iran over Obama's four years in office. This does not constitute a real diplomatic effort.
Embarking upon a sustained diplomatic process on Iran's nuclear program will not solve the larger U.S.-Iran conflict. But it can serve as an important foundation from which dialogue can continue on other equally important issues.