ROLL CALL 05/23/12
By Michael Shank

Recent Istanbul negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 and this week’s Baghdad negotiations have tempered, albeit temporarily, the cry for war.

It was close under President George W. Bush, who rallied regime-changers to invade, but it is worse now. The Pentagon publicly prepares plans, Congress issues crippling sanctions, and candidates saber rattle. A war that is preventable could proceed apace despite public opposition.

A University of Maryland poll released this spring shows nearly 7 in 10 Americans favoring continued negotiations with Iran, a position supported by majorities in all parties. That means in Baghdad we must do better.

On diplomacy, Washington, D.C., has hardly exhausted available means. Istanbul’s negotiations did not witness White House senior leadership. Never has President Barack Obama, taking example from President Richard Nixon in China with Mao Zedong or President John F. Kennedy with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, offered to sit down with Iran’s supreme leader or president. Nor have we sent a senior ambassador from the State Department to meet with Iran to negotiate.

The United States has consistently dismissed diplomatic opportunities. So, too, have the Iranians. When one has been ready, the other was absent.

While initially stating that America was willing to negotiate with Iran without preconditions, Obama’s willingness was short-lived. When Turkey and Brazil, at the White House’s behest, secured a diplomatic deal with Iran in 2010 – a historic gain, not achieved by previous negotiations – the White House torpedoed the deal in its rush to harsher sanctions.

Under the deal, Iran would ship low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for fuel for a research reactor (the same deal is now back on the table). It was not a sweeping victory, but it was a confidence-building measure and the best the West had witnessed. Obama should have supported this as a starting point.

Additionally, the Iranian government sent a proposal to the White House in 2003, through the Swiss, offering to put everything on the table. Iran proposed broad concessions to America, including a cessation of support for violent extremism, transparent inspections and adoption of the Arab peace initiative. But Bush, at the height of Middle East grandstanding, dismissed it. More letters came but were rejected. And like the Obama administration, Bush pursued direct talks with North Korea but not Iran.

The White House isn’t the only one undercutting options. Congress is equally responsible. Often under pressure by lobbyists, Congress backs increasingly crippling sanctions. And not unlike with Iraq, these sanctions do little to strangle government and, instead, heavily hurt the Iranian people.

Thanks to harsher sanctions, food shortages are widespread, hundreds of small businesses have closed, pollution is rampant and causing health issues (due to reliance on local, less efficient carbon), costs on essential items skyrocketed and people work two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Has Congress learned nothing from Iraq sanctions – decried as genocidal by implementing United Nations officials – that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, devastated infrastructure and increased support for Saddam Hussein? Sanctions will take Iran on a similar path. If Washington is serious about nonproliferation, in addition to continuing negotiations in Baghdad, other strategies must be employed. Washington must be willing to compromise.

First – after recognizing Iran’s right to enrichment for civil nuclear power generation, which Iran’s opposition supports given the need for new energy sources – we must understand why Iran might go further and seek nuclear deterrence. Its neighbors – Israel, Pakistan and India – have nuclear weapons, but they have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran signed but feels insecure because regional powers are nuclear-armed and unmonitored by it.

If America wants to undermine states’ pursuit of weapons, it must forge a formidable nonproliferation pact that includes all players, excludes nobody and ensures fair enforcement. Until this happens, Iran and Israel will feel insecure and react defensively to overtures, no matter how well-intentioned.

Second, we must pursue every avenue before resorting to a war that will turn populations against us, send unstable regions into unimaginable chaos and do little to undermine nuclear knowledge and capacity. That requires a Nixon- or
Kennedy-like maneuver, deploying the most experienced ambassadorial team capable of the most delicate communication. Obama recognizes that this is not a game and has reprimanded Congress and candidates for seeing it as such, but he has yet to take it seriously. The White House’s highest leadership should meet Iran’s leaders and take the necessary time to hash out a deal. Then Washington has a measure by which to hold Iran accountable.

Think carefully about whether a war is worth it, especially given still-violent Iraq and Afghanistan 10 years on. We cannot afford to fail at diplomacy. America’s debt-ridden economy cannot afford it and an unstable Middle East cannot either, as it will undoubtedly suffer serious loss of life from a regionwide conflagration. Istanbul was a start, but in Baghdad we must do better.

Michael Shank, a former Democratic Hill staffer, is U.S. vice president of the Institute for Economics and Peace.