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A Retrospective on US Diplomacy Toward Iran

03/13/2014 11:20 am ET | Updated May 13, 2014

Last year I had the opportunity to speak with former Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama White House officials about the history of efforts at diplomacy with the Iranian regime -- on behalf of America Abroad, a Public Radio International broadcast.  The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been at loggerheads since 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries held 59 Americans hostage for 444 days. Since that time, successive US presidents have been aware that Iran was pursuing a program to develop nuclear power, and probably nuclear weapons. After September 11, 2001, Iran's nuclear aspirations took on added urgency for the administration of President George W. Bush, who singled out Iran among three countries which he considered to be the worst global threats in his "Axis of Evil" speech.

European leaders, meanwhile, had similar concerns about Iran. They were also deeply engaged with Iran commercially and reluctant to press Iran too hard. In August 2002, attitudes changed sharply with the discovery that Iran was building two underground facilities for use in a possible nuclear weapons program.

Juan Zarate was a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism during the George W. Bush administration.

"I think the 2002 revelation at Natanz," Zarate said, "as well as the later revelation of the Qom secret facility under the Obama administration were really key lodestars for the international community, leading to a conclusion that the Iranians were likely marching toward a nuclear weapons capability."

The West was granted a reprieve in 2003, shortly after American forces entered Iraq, when the Iranian government temporarily halted its nuclear weapons program. Ambassador Dennis Ross served in high-level positions in the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Ross said there was a missed opportunity.

"At that point, they suddenly made a decision both to suspend enrichment, and they also acquiesced in what I believe was an interesting proposal which, unfortunately, was not tested. It was a proposal that would have offered a comprehensive set of discussions," Ross added, "not only on the nuclear issue, but also, issues of support for Hizbullah were put on the table."

The Administration had other concerns with respect to Iran at the time. New tensions had arisen between the two countries with respect to Iraq. According to Nicholas Burns, who served as an Undersecretary of State during the George W. Bush administration, "Iraq was a real problem for the US-Iran relationship. We saw Iran as a pernicious force in Iraq. We know that the Iranians supported some of the Shi'a militant groups who attacked our soldiers with improvised explosive devices."

The Bush administration moved to aggressively combat Iranian financing for terrorism and the nuclear program. Zarate oversaw much of this global effort.

"What we did was to establish a very aggressive use of targeted financial sanctions," Zarate said, "that put the entire world on notice that financial facilitators of terrorism, of whatever stripe, would be liable to US sanctions and exclusion from the US market, and, by effect, the international financial system."

Many of Iran's key trading partners did not join the US in the clampdown. The United Nations Security Council's first set of sanctions against Iran, in 2006, did not have serious consequences. According to Burns, "Those sanctions were important as symbolic efforts, expressing the will of the United Nations that Iran should not become a nuclear power, but they did not have sanctions with teeth."

In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created the first Iran desk at the State Department. Burns added, "I was given the Iran portfolio and the challenge of working on Iran from Secretary Rice. The big effort was to join the Europeans in thinking through how we would negotiate, hopefully peacefully with the Iranians on the nuclear issue."

Working together with its European allies, the US facilitated the passage of a string of tougher UN Security Council resolutions between 2007 and 2008. The Administration also committed to joining Europe in an effort to negotiate with Iran. Ross recalled, "The Bush Administration toward the end, in the summer of 2008, agreed to take part in the direct discussions with the Iranians. Entry into negotiation was serious, but the problem is it was seen by others as a grudging approach. The approach I think was generally seen by others to be a grudging approach to engagement."

As a US Senator and a presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Barack Obama had spoken out about the threat an Iranian nuclear program imposed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ross became the leading point man on Iran.

"If an important priority for him was to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and reducing nuclear arsenals, the last thing that would contribute to those kinds of objectives was Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state."

Even as he spoke out against Iran's nuclear ambitions, Obama renewed hopes in Europe that the United States would more aggressively pursue the diplomatic approach. On the occasion of the Iranian new year, Nawruz, the president sent a public message to Iran's leadership. Ross said the message was clear.

"The Nawruz message that was sent by the president was not only one that was unmistakably characterized as outreach, but it also specifically referred to the Islamic Republic, which was a conscious decision to make it clear, Look, we're about changing the regime's behavior that's unacceptable. We're not about changing the regime."

A few months later, the Iranian population made their voices heard in an unexpected manner, in the so-called "Green Revolution." The Obama administration adopted a measured stance toward the so-called Green Revolution. Zarate felt this was a mistake.

"The emergence of the Green Movement was such an important moment in the history of Iran, and such a lost strategic opportunity for the United States to help leverage that movement - to shape it, as a way to affect the internal dynamics and decision-making of the regime."

But Ross felt that the president's response was well calibrated. "We were getting mixed messages from the green movement. There messages we were getting from some on the inside wanting us not to raise our profile. There were some on the outside who wanted us to be much more outspoken. The mixture led to something of a more cautious approach."

Though the Iranian government managed to suppress its domestic opponents, it faced heightened international pressure a few months later, after the leaders of France, the UK, and the US revealed that Iran had been constructing another secret uranium-enrichment facility near the city of Qom. The revelation made it easier for the US and Europe to come together in imposing tighter sanctions on Iran.

Meanwhile, the Arab world became more vocal about their objection to a nuclear-armed Iran. "In the case of Saudi Arabia, the day after the Europeans declared that they were going to boycott the purchase of Iranian oil," Ross said, "the Saudis came out immediately and said that they would fill in the gap -- whatever it is that the Europeans were getting from the Iranians, they would provide in its place."

Israel, for its part, added to the pressure. In May 2011, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of Congress, cautioning against what he felt was an existential threat to Israel.

Multilateral nuclear talks with Iran subsequently resumed amid the most severe international sanctions ever to be imposed on the country. Zarate felt that Iranian hardliners were looking for a fight.

"There are elements of the Iranian regime who have in their mind a longstanding conflict with the United States -- the very essence of the revolution relying on a conflict with the United States. In many ways, with some of those hardliners, the notion that they have as a principle goal rapprochement with Washington is also a faulty view. The key leadership and the core old leadership of Iran demands conflict with the United States."

Burns added, "I think it's very clear that Iran is beginning to respond to a combination of sanctions that are both economic and financial. I believe that sanctions are an important vehicle perhaps to convince the Iranian government that it is much more in their interest to negotiate and find peace than it is to see Iran become significantly isolated from the rest of the world. Combined with diplomacy, I think this is a necessary step before we consider the use of military force."

Ross added, "This is one of these profoundly difficult problems. The gaps between us are real. If the idea is they'll look for a way out, one of the lessons of diplomacy writ large is that when those you are dealing with look for a way out, it is always a good idea to ensure that they have a pathway."

Joseph Braude is a senior fellow at Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.