Iran's nuclear program is on the tip of everyone's tongue in Washington these days, with ever-increasing congressional calls for sanctions and talk of war. The Obama administration, which desperately wants to avoid getting entangled in another military quagmire in the Middle East while preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, has been continually attacked by critics who seek to force the president's hand into starting a war.
That would be a disaster. Any military strikes on Iran would undercut our ability to prevent an Iranian bomb while harming Obama's domestic international standing, the American economy, and his image with the base of his party during a sensitive election season. So how can the Obama administration navigate this hornet's nest in an election year?
Deescalate the crisis atmosphere. Just like in 2002 before the Iraq invasion, the past several months have felt like being on a tugboat in the middle of a tropical storm: lurching to and fro, the forces of destruction all around. This environment is hardly conducive to rational decision-making and only serves those who want to see a war, whether in Washington or Tehran. An Iranian nuclear bomb is neither imminent nor inevitable -- but it could become so if Washington policymaking keeps on lurching from headline to headline, driven by the panic of the moment.
To combat this, the Obama administration needs to continue to make a vigorous effort to pushback against calls for military action. The president's speech at the AIPAC conference yesterday was a good start, when he warned against "loose talk of war," and added, "I firmly believe that an opportunity still remains for diplomacy -- backed by pressure -- to succeed."
The administration should now continue to build political space for its diplomatic efforts by continually speaking out publicly against military action against Iran -- both by Israel and by the United States. It should do so with the American public on the Sunday morning talk shows, with the media at press conferences, with Congress on Capitol Hill, and everywhere else. And it should leverage the plethora of both serving and former national security leaders, intelligence experts, and uniformed military officers who argue that military action will not resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge and will likely exacerbate the problem.
Define our interests. Each country involved in this drama -- the U.S., Iran, Israel, France, Saudi Arabia, and others -- has real interests at stake in the resolution of the tensions between Iran and the West. Yet the current debate about how to resolve these tensions is described in generalities that prevent clearheaded approaches to dealing with the issue. For instance, a new Senate resolution calls for Iran to have no nuclear capabilities -- yet doesn't even define what those capabilities are.
The Obama administration must therefore clearly define and advance our country's mutual interests with Iran, such as avoiding a war, preventing terrorism, and promoting regional stability. Both the U.S. and Iran have a track record of partnering against Al-Qaeda terrorism while defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. Engaging Iran in those areas where we have the greatest chance of success will build much needed diplomatic confidence..
Talk to Iran. As we learned with the Soviet Union, direct lines of communication are essential to avoiding unintended conflicts. We must deal directly with the Iranian nuclear program -- and get into a serious sustained dialogue with the Iranians about it. This is the issue that Americans care most about, and is certainly the issue that the international community has put at the top of its agenda. We know how to do this. We've dealt with Soviets, Maoists in China, and the North Koreans. Patience, engagement, and effective international political and economic pressure worked in those cases; they will work now.
During such discussions, we must make it clear that while an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable, we are willing to accept a peaceful Iranian nuclear program that is in compliance with verifiable international safeguards. Our diplomacy should focus on getting Iran to cease producing uranium enriched above 5% and to export its stocks of 20% enriched uranium, while implementing inspections and safeguards. Negotiations take time, and only through sustained dialogue with the Iranians can we truly test their intentions, their limits, and their flexibility. One-time summit meetings will not cut it.
Ultimately, starting a war with Iran would undermine our goal of preventing Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Only a full land invasion -- an inconceivable action -- would completely destroy the Iranian nuclear program. Worse, military action would legitimize Iranian nuclear aspirations while destroying the international coalition arrayed against an Iranian nuclear weapon. It would also deal a decisive blow to the opposition movement there. War with Iran is a recipe for disaster for Israel, the U.S., and the Middle East. Americans need to hear this more often.
Shifting the conversation in Washington from one about war to one about solutions is still possible. It's imperative for the Obama administration to do this, both for its own survival and for the security and stability of the Middle East.