After an initial hard diplomatic push at the beginning of his first term, President Obama has overwhelmingly relied on economic pressure over diplomacy in an attempt to force Iran to satisfy international concerns regarding its nuclear program. But economic pressure has undermined prospects for a negotiated solution by playing into Iranian fears that the United States is really interested in regime change. However, Iran's recent election of Hassan Rouhani has provided renewed hope that diplomatic progress could be on the horizon. A growing chorus of experts, former policymakers and Congressional representatives are urging President Obama to take advantage of this potentially fortuitous turn by reinvigorating diplomatic efforts to secure a nuclear deal.
On Monday, 29 prominent former government officials, diplomats, military officers and national security experts sent a letter to President Obama urging him to "seize the moment to pursue new multilateral and bilateral negotiations with Iran once Rouhani takes office and to avoid any provocative action that could narrow the window of opportunity for a more moderate policy out of Tehran." The signatories, including former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Assistant Secretary of State, Amb. Thomas Pickering, and former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, also urge the president to prepare to leverage existing sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program, while warning that "no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time as they could empower hardliners opposed to nuclear concessions at the expense of those seeking to shift policy in a more moderate direction."
A similar, bipartisan letter is circulating in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and Rep. David Price (D-NC). Well over 100 representatives have already signed. The Dent-Price letter urges the president to "pursue the potential opportunity," presented by Rouhani's election and calls for using sanctions as leverage to achieve a nuclear deal. Further, the letter warns "not to preempt this potential opportunity by engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime who are opposed to his professed 'policy of reconciliation and peace.'"
The Obama administration has, rightfully, expressed cautious optimism over the election results. Rouhani, a political insider and former nuclear negotiator, appears to be much more pragmatic than the inflammatory Ahmadinejad, and he has a mandate from the Iranian people to make progress on the nuclear issue and human rights. He has promised enhanced nuclear transparency and to attempt to restore relations with the West, while pursuing a non-securitized political atmosphere inside Iran that will enable the release of political prisoners and ease government interference in the lives of Iranian citizens. True, it is also important to note that Rouhani won't be a pushover. He is a strong nationalist who will likely defend Iran's perceived right to enrich uranium. And he will need to project a tough demeanor at times in order to sell a nuclear deal to conservatives in Iran's government and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds veto authority over any major policy decision.
Many have been quick to seize on these limitations in order to argue that what we really need is sanctions and war, not renewed diplomacy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on Face the Nation on Sunday, downplayed concerns over regional crises including Egypt and Syria, warning that not enough attention is being paid in Washington to Iran's nuclear program and that Iran must face "ratcheted sanctions." Further, Netanyahu stated that Iranians "have to know you'll be prepared to take military action; that's the only thing that will get their attention." He described Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" who will "smile and build a bomb." A Congressional letter, sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which garnered dozens of signatures from members on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also reflected the sentiment that nothing has changed and that Iran must face "intensifying pressure," including through new sanctions. The House is currently considering additional punishing sanctions that would limit the President's negotiating ability, deepen Iranian distrust, punish the Iranian people, and do nothing to resolve the nuclear impasse.
In reaction to Netanyahu's comments, Rouhani laughed off the threat. But Rouhani can't be seen as soft by Iran's hardliners while pursuing a nuclear deal that contains significant Iranian concessions. Otherwise, he would invite criticism of weakness or appeasement from hardliners. Rouhani faced similar attacks when he oversaw confidence-building measures as Iran's lead nuclear negotiator between 2003-2005, including the suspension of enrichment, without receiving reciprocal concessions from the West. The United States and Israel should instead be considering what actions could enhance Rouhani's room for maneuver and make a nuclear deal easier to broker.
For now, the Obama administration appears to be standing pat with the current P5+1 nuclear offer, which demands too much for the minimal sanctions relief that would be offered in return, according to Iran. Iran is unlikely to agree to major concessions without a clear roadmap for the removal of sanctions on Iran's oil and financial sectors, which have caused the greatest amount of economic pain in Iran. Those chips shouldn't be held in reserve -- they should be cashed in as part of a diplomatic deal.
President Obama would be wise to heed the cooler heads in this debate. Escalating rhetoric and pressure is not a strategy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. It is a recipe for war that will significantly constrain possibilities for a diplomatic deal. If the administration fails to revitalize the diplomatic track, the Rouhani election could just be another in a long-line of missed opportunities to reduce tensions with Iran, and the status quo of simmering tension would risk breaking out into war.