Two weeks ago, I wrote an analysis for ForeignPolicy.com, arguing that engagement should remain the policy with Iran, but that a tactical pause is necessary to make sure diplomacy succeeds. I argued that this wasn't necessary just because Washington would be wise not to engage with any faction in Iran before greater political clarity about the internal political situation in Iran can be found. Or because the outcome of the political fight in Iran can determine which Iran the world will deal with for decades to come.
Rather, the key argument was that the political chaos in Iran has made Tehran incapable of negotiating with the U.S. If the U.S. adheres to its pre-Iranian election crisis timeline, and seeks engagement with Iran prior to September, it risks dealing with an Iran that can't negotiate, can't decide and can't deliver.
Moreover, even nuclear talks would have a negligible impact on the election dispute. Iran currently is not in a position to negotiate. Some in Washington believe that the paralysis in Tehran has weakened Iran and made it more prone to compromise. But rather than delivering more, Iran's government currently couldn't deliver anything at all. The infighting has simply incapacitated Iranian decision makers.
Iran's lack of capacity creates a tremendous danger for the White House. Of all scenarios the Obama administration could end up facing -- an Iran that refuses to come to the table, for example, or an Iran that only uses talks to play for time -- the worst scenario is another one: where the parties begin talks according to the set timetable, but fail to reach an agreement due to an inability to deliver. If talks fail, U.S. policymakers will be left with increasingly unpalatable options as a result.
Obama should not be married to any artificial deadlines. Pushing for talks now simply because he decided on a timetable before the elections could undermine the chances for diplomacy to succeed. Paradoxically, the best way to enhance prospects for diplomacy might actually be not to pursue diplomacy for now. Better instead to make a tactical pause, see how things develop, and be ready to engage at the right time.
The main argument against a pause has come from those tending to view Iran solely from the nuclear prism. In their view, the nuclear clock keep ticking and the US cannot afford to lose any more time. Iran will soon, if it hasn't already, pass a mystical nuclear point of no return, they argue.
While I argued in the Foreignpolicy.com piece that "Delaying nuclear talks a few months won't make a dramatic difference to Iran's nuclear program," that article was written before the publication of the latest DNI report, which stated that, "While Iran has made significant progress in uranium enrichment technology, the State Department's intelligence bureau (INR) continues to assess it is unlikely that Iran will have the technical capability to produce HEU [highly enriched uranium] before 2013."
So, if the U.S. has four years, rather than three months, to address the Iranian nuclear program through diplomacy before Iran can produce HEU, then the case for a pause is stronger than ever. Indeed, mindful of the fact that few at State believe the Iranians will or can begin negotiations in September, the biggest mistake the U.S. can commit is to begin setting deadlines that no one -- including the U.S. itself -- believes can be held up.
In fact, it's that bad Bush-Cheney habit of substituting diplomacy with the dictation of unrealistic deadlines that weakened America's negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran in the first place.