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Loren White Headshot

Why the 'Dual Track' Strategy Derailed

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In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama ran on a foreign policy platform of increased engagement with America's adversaries. Obama was particularly critical of the Bush administration's refusal to negotiate with Iranian leaders without preconditions. Yet aside from a "single roll of the dice" at diplomacy -- as Dr. Trita Parsi refers to it in his new book on the subject -- Obama's Iran policy bares an uncanny resemblance to that of the Bush administration's pressure-only approach. How is it that the same candidate who advocated so strongly for using diplomacy with Iran ended up being the president that has implemented the most "crippling" sanctions to date -- and who made only one inchoate effort at negotiations?

The answer lies with Obama's official Iran policy, or the 'dual track' strategy as it is known. This approach advocates pursuing two separate avenues with Iran rather than using a single-faceted approach. The first track is diplomatic engagement; the second track is the continued application of economic and political pressures. Unfortunately, this strategy has suffered from two major defects.

First and foremost, there is something fundamentally contradictory about trying to engage in diplomacy with the same people that you are simultaneously putting the screws to with increasingly harsh sanctions.

Diplomacy requires building good will and trust. However, after 30 years without diplomatic relations -- and with a continued demonization of the other side as 'mad mullahs' or 'the great Satan' -- sustained efforts to fill the trust gap have been in short supply. The continued pursuit of 'crippling sanctions' only exacerbates this problem. The idea that an onslaught of sanctions, secret assassinations and computer viruses will somehow inspire Iran to engage in good faith negotiations has no basis in the 33-year history of the Islamic Republic.

Perhaps no less important, however, is that Obama's 'dual track' approach inaccurately portrays a balance between pressure and engagement. In reality, the former has superseded the latter. Yet, pressure cannot prevent a nuclear Iran. Short of the leadership in Tehran deciding to unilaterally end the very same nuclear program they have staked their legitimacy on, pressure can only increase Iran's recalcitrance, or create leverage for negotiations. Either way, pressure alone cannot succeed.

This is true of both economic and military pressure. High-ranking generals acknowledge that a preemptive strike cannot permanently end Iran's nuclear program. Military options are a temporary stopgap measure; there is no military solution. Even if a military strike or corresponding threats could pressure Iran into making concessions on its nuclear program, a diplomatic solution would still be required to permanently end the crisis.

Additionally, those that eschew diplomacy and harbor hopes for an Arab Spring-style regime change in Iran should remember that its nuclear program enjoys wide support on the Iranian street. Even opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi supported Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program during the 2009 presidential campaign. This reveals an inconvenient truth: If the current regime in Tehran falls, the U.S. still must engage in sustained nuclear negotiations with whatever government takes its place.

Diplomacy is the only realistic solution to the nuclear crisis. The real question is: What approach is most likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table with the motivation to make concessions? For years, the pressure card has been played, and any net benefit has likely already been reaped. Thus, it's time for a change in strategy. Rather than relying solely on pressure to coerce Iran into acquiescence, we must offer real incentives -- as perceived by Iran. A notable incentive that has been hinted at by the administration -- but not sufficiently spelled out to Iranian decision-makers -- is a guarantee of Iran's right to enrich uranium to the 3.5 percent level if they allow sufficiently stringent verification measures to be put in place.

Being an election season there are political risks for the administration making such an offer, and there is no guarantee that the Iranians would accept. But like many long-standing adversarial relationships, diplomacy seems hopeless until it works. If the U.S. could make peace with nuclear-armed Maoist China that was supplying the North Vietnamese with weapons to kill American troops, there is hope for diplomacy with Iran.

Recent events warrant cautious optimism. It has been reported that Iran may provide IAEA inspectors with access to the controversial and previously off-limits Parchin site. Additionally, Iran and the P5+1 are in the final stages of an agreement to return to negotiations next month. Even Supreme Leader Khamenei publically offered moderate but rare praise to Obama for his comments about a "window for diplomacy" existing with Iran. Do these indicators point to a new desire by Iran to compromise on its nuclear program, or is this an attempt to buy time and undermine its international isolation? Given that the pressure track has been exhausted, it is time to test Iran's seriousness and give diplomacy the sustained effort that it needs in order to succeed.