The Five-Year Engagement

As Obama begins his second term, one thing is clear: the administration's Iran policy is failing. What now, Mr. President?

There is no better example of an Obama administration initiative that has succeeded on its own terms, and yet failed as policy, than Iran. By engaging the regime in Tehran, and being rebuffed, the White House has been able to enlist China, Russia, and the European Union in imposing tough sanctions on Iran. By steadily ratcheting up those sanctions, the administration has been able to gradually squeeze the Iranian economy. By insisting that "containment" is not an option, Obama has persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he need not launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities -- at least not any time soon.

Obama has done everything right, and yet his Iran policy is failing. There is no evidence that the sanctions will bring Iran to its knees and force the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to accept the humiliation of abandoning his nuclear program. But neither is there any sign of new thinking in the White House. "I don't see how what didn't work last year is going to work this year," says Vali Nasr, who served in the Obama State Department before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He might not get much of an argument from White House officials, who, the New York Times recently noted, "seem content with stalemate."

The United States is not negotiating directly with Iran but rather doing so through the P5+1, which consists of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany. The P5+1's current position is that Iran must stop enriching nuclear fuel to 20 percent purity -- a point from which Iran could quickly move to weapons-grade material -- transfer its existing stock of such fuel to a third country, and shut down one of its two enrichment facilities, known as Fordow. In exchange, the parties will help Iran produce such fuel for medical purposes, which the regime claims is its actual goal. Iran has refused, saying it will not shut down Fordow.

But the current state of play masks the larger issue, which is that the ayatollah and those around him believe the United States wants to make Iran cry uncle -- which happens to be true. The next round of P5+1 negotiations, now scheduled for Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan, are almost certainly not going to go anywhere unless the United States signals that it is prepared to make what the Iranians view as meaningful and equivalent moves in exchange for Iranian concessions. Arms-control experts say that both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Catherine Ashton, head of foreign affairs for the European Union, favor offering Iran a reduction in sanctions; but there's a limit to what they can do without the United States.

Of course, such flexibility would be pointless if Iran is simply hell-bent on gaining the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The signals, as always with Iran, are cryptic. Iranian authorities have told nuclear inspectors that they plan to install a new generation of centrifuges in order to accelerate enrichment. And yet Iran also chose to convert some of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for medical use rather than approach the amount needed for a bomb, leading Israeli authorities to predict that Iran wouldn't be able to build a bomb before 2015 or 2016. Last week, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei's foreign policy advisor, publicly criticized officials who have treated the negotiations dismissively. Presumably, he was thinking of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has compared Iran's nuclear program to a train without brakes.

Iran is now at the outset of what promises to be a raucous presidential election, and may be no more capable of serious negotiations between now and June than the United States was in 2012. But what is clear is that the sanctions have moderated Iranian behavior and rhetoric. At the same time, as the Times also noted, the economic pressure is not nearly great enough to compel concessions that the regime would view as a blow to national pride. In short, Iran might -- might -- be more willing to accept a face-saving compromise than they were a year or two ago, but will need serious inducements to do so.

What would that entail? Virtually all the proposals that have come from outside experts suggest that the P5+1 begin with modest confidence-building measures, especially in the period before the election. A recent report by the Arms Control Association enumerates several of them. Western diplomats, for example, could take up Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, on his proposal to limit the "extent" of enrichment -- i.e., well below 20 percent -- in exchange for fuel rods for the research reaction and a recognition of Iran's "right to enrich," a notional concept the United States already supports under specified conditions. Or Iran could suspend 20-percent enrichment in exchange for a suspension of new sanctions. But Iran is unlikely to accept even such small steps unless it felt that additional moves would win additional explicit concessions.

Beyond that, the outlines of what in Middle East peacemaking is known as "final status" are clear enough: Iran agrees to verifiable inspections to ensure that it does not enrich uranium beyond 3.5 percent and does not pursue a nuclear weapons program, while the West accepts Iran's "right to enrich" and dismantles sanctions. Of course, the outlines of a Middle East peace deal are clear enough, too. But in both cases, neither side trusts the other, and each demands that the other go first. Instead, nobody goes anywhere.

U.S. officials have very good reason to be wary of Iran's bona fides. In 2009, they reached a deal with Iranian negotiators to send the stockpile of highly enriched uranium out of the country -- only to see the ayatollah repudiate it. As Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert with the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, "Khamenei has created a politics where it's hard for him to compromise." But so has the United States. Anyone who watched Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing knows that it is an article of faith in Congress -- and pretty much a bipartisan one -- that Iran is a faithless, illegitimate terrorist state that will be deterred from building a bomb only by the threat of massive attack. Had Hagel been foolish enough to suggest that the United States offer to reduce sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions, the White House would have had to find a new candidate for defense secretary.

It's the U.S. Congress that arguably holds the high cards, though the White House put them in its hands. The most potent sanctions are legislated, and have been written in such a way that they will be very hard to unwind. Obama can waive them for up to six months. But the ayatollah is not about to make irreversible decisions in exchange for six months of relief.

The White House is thus stuck between Tehran and Capitol Hill. And it can't live long with the current stalemate. After all, Obama has said that "containment" is not an option. He is hoping that the combination of economic pain and fear of military action will bring Tehran to its senses. If it doesn't, the president has said that he is prepared to use force. Perhaps he feels that just as spurned engagement served as the predicate for tough sanctions, so would failed negotiations lay the predicate for a broadly supported strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran left us no choice, he might say, as the bombers fly.

That would constitute a diplomatic triumph ... if a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is a good idea. If in fact it's a dreadful prospect -- worse, perhaps, even than containment -- then it would constitute a failure that would obliterate the record of adroit diplomacy of the last four years. Obama understands very well -- even if many members of Congress do not -- that even our worst adversaries have interests of their own, that those interests feel as legitimate to them as ours do to us, and that we at least have a chance of settling disputes with them if we can find the place where our interests overlap. The time has come for him to apply that wisdom to Iran.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Team of Buddies

Is President Obama’s national security team too like-minded and conservative about the limits of American power?

On Feb. 20, 2008, Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel found themselves standing on a remote and snowbound mountain road in the vast wilderness of Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. They had been flying back from an army outpost to Bagram Air Base when a snowstorm forced their helicopter to make an emergency landing. Their lives were never in danger; but three or four hours would elapse, and night would fall, before a convoy from Bagram could reach the group and ferry them back to safety. Naturally, one wonders what these three members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said to one another while awaiting rescue. I recently learned the answer.

After a heartwarming anecdote about how Grandpa Al survived the Donora Blizzard of 1938, Biden said, "Some day soon, I'm going to be vice president, you're going to be secretary of state, and you're going to be secretary of defense -- and we're going to show that bright and clean and nice-looking black guy how to run the world."

Okay, that part I haven't been able to corroborate yet, but the rest of the story has been the subject of news accounts. Hagel told me about the trip in a 2009 conversation. He also told me that he and Biden had traveled all over the world together, that nobody knew national security like Biden did and that the vice president was dead right about the futility of an ambitious counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Oh, and on the 2008 trip, which had also included India and Pakistan, Biden and Kerry had concluded that the United States had to make a large-scale aid commitment to Pakistan -- the origin of the legislation ultimately known as Kerry-Lugar-Berman.

With Kerry now confirmed as secretary of state, and Hagel now undergoing a ritual scourging which will almost certainly lead to confirmation as secretary of defense, Barack Obama's national security team will be lead by an old boys club whose members have traveled, advised, and pooled ideas with each other for years. The fourth member of the club, national security advisor Tom Donilon, said to me a few years back that he could hardly remember a time when he didn't know Biden. Donilon's new deputy, Antony Blinken, is Biden's former chief foreign policy aide. Biden once told me that he was one of Kerry's few good friends in the Senate, and saw himself as Kerry's "interlocutor" with the White House.

I always thought that the "team of rivals" imagery from 2009 was way overdone, but it's true that none of the senior figures knew one another well, and Obama had to deputize Biden to smooth friction among them. That's over; now the national security team looks like a golfing foursome.

Does it matter? In another interview, in 2011, Hagel told me that Kerry, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "bolstered Joe Biden's global view of strategic issues and international affairs." Hagel's point was that Biden very much needed the help, since the people then closest to President Obama -- David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel -- knew very little about the world. Strategic thinking had been missing from the White House, Hagel said, since the administration of the first George Bush. Hagel was hardly the only person to complain that foreign policy in Obama's first term was driven by political calculation and ad hoc reactions. It's reasonable to hope that the execution of foreign policy in Obama II will be less reactive and more consistent.

But what about the content? The first thing that needs to be said is that the identity and views of Obama's chief advisors will not change the president's obvious wish to narrow the scope of American foreign policy: to withdraw from existing military entanglements and avoid new ones, so as to save his political capital for the epochal battles to come over taxes, entitlements, immigration, and gun control. And it's hard to believe that an increasingly confident president will choose to exercise less, rather than more, control over the formulation of national security policy. If the Afghanistan policy debate of 2009 occurred today, Obama would wrap it up much more quickly and decisively.

That said, foreign policy, unlike domestic affairs, is fundamentally unpredictable, and the president is bound to face a great many decisions for which he is unprepared. The collective voice of The Team of Buddies could still tip the balance. And in many ways it will be a collective voice. Not only Hagel, but also Kerry, told me that he thought Biden was right on Afghanistan -- though Kerry said that he felt that he should not publicly oppose Obama, at that early moment in his tenure, on a supreme question of war and peace. All three, that is, have enough experience of the world to be wary of grand schemes, and to be inclined to choose the more modest of proffered alternatives. All three are classic "realists" in their regard for prudence, which Hans Morgenthau described as the statesman's watchword. When Hagel talked about "strategic thinking" he meant "seasoned professionalism" rather than, say, "intellectual coherence." Kerry and Biden would subscribe to the same definition.

The differences among them strike me as temperamental rather than ideological, though being out of power has given Hagel the luxury to utter heterodox opinions which he is now furiously reeling in, like his skepticism about the effectiveness of tough sanctions on Iran. Among the three, Hagel has perhaps the most deep-seated conviction about the limits of American power, which is what the conservatives who are gunning for him find the most intolerable. He told me in 2009, at a time when Biden was shuttling between Washington and Baghdad, that "there's very little we can do" about Iraq.

If Hagel would be the strongest advocate of "do less," Kerry would be the proponent of "do more." On my 2011 trip with him to Pakistan and Afghanistan, he told me that a precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to a civil war, with disastrous consequences for the United States as well as for Afghans. Kerry might be inclined to leave more troops there than either Biden or Hagel. And unlike those two, Kerry also supported the intervention in Libya. Kerry seems to have more of his foreign-policy idealism left intact than Biden does, or than Hagel ever had. It is easier to imagine him calling for a significant American role in a future Mali-type engagement than Biden or Hagel. Still, these are differences at the margin.

Of course, Kerry, Hagel, and Biden are not very much different from Clinton, Gates, and Biden. Perhaps the biggest difference is Obama. Back in the Team of Rivals era, Obama appeared to have surrounded himself with thinkers older and more conventional than himself in order to counterbalance his own penchant for the visionary. But Obama is quite a bit older and grayer himself. He sees less opportunity in the world, and more threat. Asked by The New Republic about his own moral calculus on acting to protect the rebels in Syria, Obama said that the torrent of frightening news he receives every day had made him "more mindful probably than most of us" of America's limitations. Sounds positively Hagelian.

The Team of Buddies, in short, are unlikely to seriously disagree with each other, or with President Obama. That should make for a smoothly carpentered, George Bush-the-elder foreign policy over the next fours years. Not bold, not brave; but well managed.

At this moment in history, Obama may need a goad more than a brake -- a reminder that despite the palpable weariness of the American people, much of the world still looks to this country for acts of leadership.