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How Diplomacy with Iran Can Succeed

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As Iranians go to cast their ballots in Friday's elections, it is much more than just Iran's future that is at stake. The White House is closely following the elections, as is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister may be watching Washington's reaction to the results more than the results themselves since his meeting with President Barack Obama last month confirmed that they are likely to bring different approaches to the critical problems facing the Middle East. While the President will base his Middle East policy on diplomacy to resolve conflicts, particularly with Iran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be pressing for tight timelines on diplomacy and for tough action sooner rather than later.

The President would be well advised to pursue his chosen strategy with the intent to succeed -- not fail -- and the most critical factor will be time. There are those urging hard and fast deadlines on the President for diplomacy with Iran -- both here and in Israel -- who do not aim to see diplomacy succeed but to use its failure to justify harsher measures.

One cannot help but be reminded of recent examples when a failure to provide adequate time damaged U.S. policy in the Middle East. In the rush to war in Iraq in 2002, despite pleas from UN inspectors to give weapons inspections time to prove they were in fact working, President Bush called for the removal of international inspectors to make way for "shock and awe." Allowing time for the non-military option to work could have saved tens of thousands of lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and the international reputation of the United States.

Similarly, the lack of adequate time to prepare and pursue diplomacy was one reason why President Clinton's push for Israeli-Palestinian peace failed under tight time constraints at the end of his term.

History argues strongly for President Obama to resist pressure to set arbitrary deadlines for diplomacy with Iran - as he did again on Monday. While we agree with the President that talks cannot be open-ended, the focus should be on how to make diplomacy succeed rather than debating when to declare it a failure. Successful diplomacy will require international cooperation -- with Israel and with other actors -- and an exquisite sense of timing as to when to push, when to listen and when to wait.

Failure to give diplomacy the attention and time it needs could have dire consequences for key U.S. interests: the stability of Iraq and Afghanistan, the global nonproliferation regime, and the prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors. That is why the administration's diplomatic approach towards Iran must be designed to ensure success, not just to position us for other steps after an eventual break-down.

Similarly, efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran even before diplomacy has begun will only undermine President Obama's agenda in the Middle East. Sanctions can play a role in our approach to Iran, but they should not be permitted to interfere with and complicate the diplomatic path President Obama has set forth. We applaud the clear message sent by Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman when he promised not to move new sanctions legislation through the House in the near future.

Just as no President would take America to war without being fully committed to leading the country to victory, neither should diplomacy be embarked on without America's complete commitment to that strategy.

Diplomacy with Iran will not be easy, but it is necessary. Iran rests at the nexus of many of the complex problems facing the Middle East and American interests there. The various conflicts in the Middle East cannot be compartmentalized. Each affects the other, and, as President Obama has recognized, a comprehensive solution is needed.

With so much riding on this difficult challenge, America must realize that missing the opportunity to find a diplomatic solution is not an option. The elections result may help pave the way. Fortunately, even if the election results are not to Washington's liking, there is nothing about the challenge posed by Iran that should preclude a diplomatic solution. The trick, we must realize, will be to avoid setting up roadblocks to our own success.