2013 and Beyond
In the current climate, both Washington and Tehran have avoided making meaningful compromises, and instead have continued a dangerous cycle of escalation. As both sides push tensions ever higher, the reality is that neither side has gained an upper hand -- nor do they have time on their side.
In this high-stakes game of chicken, American and Iranian decision-makers are running out of time. Both sides are nearing a critical point, after which delaying the inevitable choice between military action and compromise is no longer tenable. The year 2013 may very well be that critical point.
So what can be done differently this time around? Both Washington and Tehran should study the incomplete diplomatic process of the past four years and adjust their respective approaches. Four such lessons stand out.
First, the United States and Iran must talk directly. Negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (referred to as the P5+1) are not enough. What is largely a U.S.-Iran conflict has become increasingly bogged down with numerous stakeholders at the table. Iran has refused bilateral diplomacy with the United States since October 2009, but there are ways to get the Iranians to agree.
One such way would be for Washington to expand the agenda of private, bilateral talks. Iran has stated its interest in going beyond the most difficult issue on the table -- its nuclear program -- and discussing additional regional security issues such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as human rights. America has preferred to keep the focus solely on nuclear issues, but this has only exacerbated each of these respective crises.
Discussing these issues is not tantamount to accepting linkages between them. By separating the settings for these two conversations, Washington will get the crucial bilateral channel without further convoluting the nuclear talks.
Second, the United States must come to grips with the fact that some sanctions must be lifted. For nearly a full calendar year, the P5+1 has made its negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran crystal clear: Iran must cap its uranium enrichment at the 5 percent level, ship its stockpile of higher-enriched uranium to a third-party country, and scrap its deeply buried uranium-enrichment facility. But what Iran would get in return remains up in the air -- the P5+1 has been vague on the package of incentives it would offer to reciprocate such concessions.
A feasible solution is to match verifiable Iranian limitations on uranium enrichment with a lifting of Europe's existing oil embargo. This would add time to the negotiation clock and allow the necessary political space for diplomacy to run its course. Privately, European diplomats note that they await a signal from the United States on whether to begin seriously considering an end to the embargo. If the Obama administration approves, there is unlikely to be serious resistance -- but the EU will not act without prior American acquiescence.
Third, the U.S. must avoid issuing ultimatums. After four years of pressure-based policies, many in Washington have learned a valuable lesson about diplomacy with Tehran: Pressing the Islamic Republic to give a quick yes usually results in it saying no. Unfortunately, some still insist on approaching the U.S.-Iran conflict with the "take it or leave it" approach that has consistently failed to bear fruit. The latest installment in this line of thinking says that we should offer to discuss all outstanding issues with Iran -- but if they reject our first such offer, we start a war.
Such ultimatums represent a self-fulfilling prophecy. While the United States should consider broadening the agenda for talks with Iran, no such diplomatic process can be expected to succeed on the first try. If the Iranians presented any such ultimatum to the United States, Obama would rightly reject it and see it as an attempt to justify Iranian intransigence. Similarly, Tehran -- and the world -- will view any U.S. ultimatum as an attempt to create a path toward war.
Finally, the United States must be willing to play the long game. This is a marathon, not a sprint: An institutionalized enmity that has taken over three decades to build will not be undone over the course of a few meetings. Success will only come if diplomats place a premium on patience and long-term progress rather than quick fixes. Diplomacy is hard, but one can never predict where discussions will lead once they have started.
Naturally, it takes two to tango. No diplomatic process can guarantee success, and it remains unclear whether Iran will reciprocate American overtures. Tehran must show greater transparency, flexibility, and reconcile itself to the reality that, at the end of the day, its nuclear program will have limitations.
But if peace is the metric of success, then diplomacy provides a better guarantee than war. Obama can best capitalize on the opportunity of his second term -- and avoid the mistakes of his predecessors -- by appreciating the limits of American military prowess, and placing his confidence in the power of American diplomacy.