11/15/2012 02:03 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

Obama's Second Chance to Engage Iran


At the outset of his first term President Barack Obama did explore diplomatic routes to check Iran's nuclear ambitions, but the mullahs responded with little more than insouciance. However, Tehran is not alone to blame. The administration had always planned on abandoning diplomacy after Obama's first 12 months in office if a deal with Iran failed to materialize. Obama's reelection should remove some political constraints, yet domestic resistance within the U.S. and Iran could still impede rapprochement. Although forging a settlement will require both sides to muster a significant amount of political courage, it is well worth the risk.

According to the National Iranian American Council's Trita Parsi, after spending its political capital on healthcare, team Obama deemed it politically unfeasible to extend the timeline for negotiating with Iran beyond one year, especially with mid-terms looming. In fact, in 2010 the Obama administration rejected a uranium swap deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey. During a lecture at Johns Hopkins University a few weeks ago, Parsi asserted that, although the State Department cited technicalities, the real reason the U.S. rebuffed the proposal was because the administration had already promised Congress it would levy sanctions against Iran. Obama calculated that it would be much easier to break a promise made to Brazil and Turkey than one made to Capitol Hill. The political fallout outweighed risking a lengthy negotiations process with a recalcitrant and unreliable Iranian regime.

A Mitt Romney victory, some pundits believe, would have guaranteed another war in the Middle East, given Romney's cozy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli hardliners want to bomb Iran now, perceiving negotiations as a stall tactic that would enable the Iranians to continue enriching uranium. On the other hand, lest we forget, the Obama administration has repeatedly insinuated that it would employ military force before Iran reached the requisite "breakout capacity" to build a nuclear weapon. Hence, a violent conflagration is still within the realm of possibility, and might even be a matter of time, which is why a diplomatic solution is imperative.

Obama rallied the international community to apply the most crippling sanctions package in world history, including debilitating restrictions on oil experts, Iran's chief source of revenue. The sanctions have devastated Iran's economy, as it reportedly loses more than $3 billion per month, forcing Iran to cut subsidies on basic essentials. Although the sanctions have inflicted material damage, they have proven ineffective in altering Tehran's behavior; if anything, they have caused the regime to accelerate its nuclear program. Historically, as Parsi has underlined, while sanctions have been sold as an alternative to war, they have actually made war more likely.

Launching airstrikes against Iran would be severely detrimental to U.S. interests. For one, American taxpayers are in no mood to fund another military excursion. Plus, a slew of experts believe airstrikes would only delay Tehran's nuclear program up to four years. The U.S must also consider Iran's retaliatory capabilities, including shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes a considerable amount of the world's energy resources, and its ability to strike American personnel abroad. In addition, airstrikes would ignite blowback across the Middle East and undermine U.S. foreign policy in the region. From Iran's perspective, cooperation would enable it to ease economic sanctions, reenter the international community and prevent a war it can little afford.

Encouraging overtures seem to be emanating from Tehran since the presidential election, yet these should be handled with cautious optimism because Iran is certain to ferociously defend its right to enrich. President Ahmadinejad and Iran's speaker of parliament have indicated within the past week that they are open to direct talks. And a recently released Iranian intelligence report has stressed that negotiating with the Obama administration is in Iran's best interests.

Iran and the U.S. need to establish back-channel communications instead of fighting this battle through the press. Finding common ground and fully respecting one another's underlying interests are prerequisites for any mutually beneficial arrangement. It is also critical that said agreement is fashioned in a manner that would allow both sides to "save face" politically.

Iran must seriously weigh the international community's demands to cease enriching uranium beyond limits for peaceful application. Iran must also open its facilities for legitimate inspections and rein in belligerent rhetoric, such as calls for Israel's extinction. In return, the U.S. must gradually provide sanctions relief at a pace commensurate with the implementation of Iranian concessions, and must stifle neoconservative voices clamoring for regime change.

The challenge in negotiating with Iran is that the final decision is ultimately left to the discretion of the Supreme Leader. Though Iran's senior clerics are often characterized as crazed religious sadomasochists who are impervious to deterrence, often for good reason, they have also exhibited a deep survival instinct. Hopefully, this sense of self-preservation incents Iran's leaders to compromise. And, hopefully, U.S. leaders are able to read Iran's true motives before missiles are en route.