06/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Diplomacy as a Last Resort

Barack Obama and John McCain agree on one thing: When it comes to Iran, all options are on the table.

That makes sense. No one knows for sure if Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. But its president gives every indication that it is.

Addressing a cheering crowd in Tehran on Wednesday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that the United States and the European Union had failed in their efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear:

"They've tried by military threats... and political pressure to stop [us] from our luminous path. But today they have seen that all their planning has failed. Today the Iranian nation is standing on the nuclear heights."

That does not sound like he's talking about producing electricity for air-conditioning.

I understand that Ahmadinejad does not run Iran and that his bosses, the mullahs, do. At the same time, he is president of the country. He is not irrelevant. Nor is he just a nutcase.

History has taught us the hard way that unbalanced leaders can cause the deaths of millions. In fact, the most horrific crimes against humanity have been inflicted upon the world by people as unstable as Ahmadinejad appears to be. One cannot simply laugh him off, despite the temptation to do just that.

That is why our candidates for president and our European allies are emphatic about not taking any options off the table.

Of course, when they say that, they are referring to the military option. They believe that Ahmadinejad needs to know that, under certain conditions, the U.S. government would use force to protect ourselves or our allies. That goes without saying. Obviously, the United States will do everything in its power to prevent an attack by Iran or to respond militarily should an attack take place. Still, in dealing with the likes of Ahmadinejad, there is nothing wrong with saying it.

The military option is always on the table. Just listen to the latest rhetoric emanating from the Bush administration and the Israelis.

It appears that it is the non-military option that is missing from the proverbial table.

This is a mistake.

Do we really want to wake up to the news that the United States (or Israel) has attacked Iran and that Israelis in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem are huddled in shelters pending Hezbollah's response? Or that the United States has returned to Code Orange because of the expectation of terrorist attacks here at home?

Before attacking another country, shouldn't we try diplomacy first?

The Bush administration argues that we have, but that is not so. In fact, the Bush administration ignored a 2003 Iranian offer to negotiate a "Grand Bargain" between the Islamic regime and the United States that would have addressed all the outstanding issues between the two countries, including WMD's, terrorism, and relations with Israel.

The idea for a "Grand Bargain" came from the Iranian regime at about the time the United States had successfully overthrown Saddam Hussein. This was before we got bogged down in Iraq, before the Iraqi insurgency coalesced, and before our Iraq policy transformed Iraq from Iran's worst enemy to Iran's Shiite ally. In other words, it was when we still held most of the cards and Iran was nervous.

According to USA Today reporter Barbara Slavin's book Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, the Iranian proposal was as follows. Iran would join us in the fight against al Qaeda and support stabilization efforts in Iraq. It would open its nuclear program to full international inspection. It would end its support for Hamas, disarm Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it would recognize and accept Israel.

In exchange the United States would drop its sanctions against Iran and pledge to end its pursuit of regime change.

In other words, we would get everything we want from Iran in exchange for promising, after almost three decades of rejection, to simply accept the permanence of the Iranian regime. That is little more than acknowledging that it is up to the Iranian people to implement regime change in Iran -- not us.

In a PBS interview last year, Flynt Leverett, who was President Bush's Middle East Director of the National Security Council, described the 2003 offer. He said that the Iranians wanted "to resolve all of the outstanding bilateral differences between the United States and Iran. On the Iranian side, they acknowledged that they would need to be prepared to deal with our concerns about their WMD activities, their links to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and they said in there that they would be prepared to eliminate military support for these organizations and to work to turn Hezbollah, for example, into a purely political and social organization in Lebanon. They recognized that this would be something they would need to do as part of a rapprochement."

Leverett said that he was stunned by the breadth of the proposal:

"I thought it was an extraordinary proposal, basically on a comparable scale to the kinds of representations from Zhou Enlai that were passed through Pakistan in 1971 that paved the way for Kissinger's secret trip to Beijing and then the Nixon trip to China. I thought they were proposing something on that scale of historic and strategic importance..."

Leverett's superiors felt differently.

They ignored the offer. The only affirmative action the Bush administration took was to admonish the Swiss for having passed it along. A Republican Congressman did manage to brief Karl Rove about it, but that was before Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (and their neoconservative underlings) set out to ensure that the overture was ignored. After "Mission Accomplished," the Bush administration felt no need to negotiate with any member of the evil axis.

The offer disappeared without a trace. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not deny that any of this happened. She simply says she can't "recall seeing any such thing."

It's an incredible story and, no doubt, the historians will have a field day with this missed opportunity.

Of course, we are still missing it. Although the Iraq war has significantly strengthened Iran -- while significantly weakening America and Israel -- the Iranians still have reason to fear us. Unless and until the United States accepts the mullahs' regime, it remains insecure and as fragile, in its own way, as the Shah's regime before it.

The tough talk from both Washington and Jerusalem -- tough talk that could well be a prelude to tough action -- also adds to the sense of insecurity, no matter how much bloviating we hear from Ahmadinejad. Trita Parsi, the leading American expert on Iranian-Israeli relations and the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, wrote about Iran's motivations last week in Foreign Policy. His conclusion: the Iranian government is capable of making rational decisions, never mind the rhetoric.

"When forced to choose, Tehran invariably chooses its geostrategic interests over its ideological impulses... When these two pillars of Iranian foreign policy have clashed, as they did in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran's geostrategic concerns have consistently prevailed. Tehran quietly sought Israel's aid, and the Jewish state made many efforts to place Iran and the United States back on speaking terms. Faced with an invading Iraqi army and finding its U.S.-built weaponry starved of spare parts by a U.S. embargo, Tehran was in desperate need of help from Israel. Israel, in turn, was more than eager to avoid an Iraqi victory and to restore the traditional Israeli-Iranian clandestine security cooperation established under the shah, the mullahs' fierce anti-Israeli rhetoric notwithstanding."

Like China, another state built around an aggressive and paranoid ideology, Iran is not suicidal. It is pragmatic. How pragmatic can only be discovered by testing it.

The opportunity to talk is still out there.

Before initiating a war that would turn the Middle East upside down and whose results cannot be foreseen, why not explore the diplomatic option first? Shouldn't Iraq have taught us that fully exhausting alternatives to war -- and not merely pretending to -- is critical.

Will diplomacy work? It might. Then again, it might not.

In either case, nothing is lost by exploring every opportunity to prevent war, absolutely nothing. Pursuing negotiations, even if they fail, would build international support for any action we might be forced to take.

Yes, all options must be on the table. Shouldn't it be war, and not diplomacy, that is our last resort?

MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.