The challenges of diplomacy with Tehran are undeniable. But the potential ramifications of a military attack on Iran are so dire that President Obama must give engagement another chance. With Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei still a formidable obstacle to any binding nuclear deal, the realistic aim of diplomacy should not be forging a comprehensive, long-term agreement. The administration should instead focus on motivating Iran to cap its nuclear development.

Karim Sadjadpour
Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
More >

Few foreign policy challenges will figure more prominently in Barack Obama’s second term than checking Iran’s nuclear ambitions while avoiding another military conflagration in the Middle East. U.S. officials believe that Tehran has yet to decide whether to produce nuclear weapons, but President Obama made clear in his first term that if faced with the binary choice of either bombing Iran or allowing Tehran to get a bomb he would choose the former. Given the potentially enormous ramifications of a military attack on Iran—on the global economy, regional stability, international law, America’s standing in the world, and the well-being of thousands of Iranians—every effort should be pursued to avoid this outcome.

Diplomacy with Iran is difficult. In addition to the fact that Washington and Tehran have not had official relations since 1979, the Islamic Republic’s top leadership—namely Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—has arguably come to see opposition to America (and Israel) as an inextricable part of the revolutionary regime’s identity. Khamenei believes Washington’s underlying goal in Tehran is regime change, not behavior change.

Still, while Obama’s attempt to reach a modus vivendi with Tehran in his first term was unsuccessful, the administration should give it another try. The costs of a military attack would be staggering. Iran’s influence on key U.S. foreign policy challenges—namely Afghanistan, Iraq, Arab-Israeli peace, terrorism, and energy security—will be more manageable in an environment of tough diplomacy than in one of war. As long as Iran can be induced to keep its nuclear activities peaceful, war is neither necessary nor in the U.S. interest.

As long as Iran can be induced to keep its nuclear activities peaceful, war is neither necessary nor in the U.S. interest.

Obama’s Unreciprocated Engagement

George Perkovich
Perkovich works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues; cyberconflict; and new approaches to international public-private management of strategic technologies.

More than any U.S. president since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Obama attempted to change the tone and context of the U.S.-Iran relationship. In a thinly veiled reference to Iran in his inauguration speech, Obama offered to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” On March 19, 2009, to mark the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, Obama recorded a videotaped greeting to both the Iranian people and the leaders of the “Islamic Republic of Iran”—a subtle but unprecedented acknowledgement of the nature of the Iranian system. He declared, “My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”

Less than forty-eight hours later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quickly dashed hopes that Obama’s goodwill overture might be reciprocated in Tehran. Khamenei mocked Obama’s “change” mantra as merely a tactical shift, repeated a long list of “arrogant, domineering” U.S. historical injustices against Iran, and called for the Obama administration to take various unilateral measures in order to show its genuine commitment to change.

More significant than Obama’s public overtures to Tehran were two private letters he wrote to Khamenei, making it clear that the United States was interested in a confidence-building process that could pave the way for rapprochement. In his lone response to Obama, however, Khamenei continued to focus on past American misdeeds rather than prospects for future cooperation.

Whereas the Bush administration’s threats of war united Iran’s disparate political factions against a common threat, Obama’s outreach helped to accentuate Iran’s deep internal fissures, both among political elites and between an older, sclerotic regime and its youthful subjects. This was apparent in the aftermath of the contested reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009, which spurred Iran’s largest political protests since the 1979 Revolution. Despite the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters known as the Green Movement, Obama was reluctant to fully embrace their cause, concerned that overt American support could taint their independence.

Obama’s outreach helped to accentuate Iran’s deep internal fissures, both among political elites and between an older, sclerotic regime and its youthful subjects.

By the fall of 2009, suspicions of Iran’s intentions were intensified by revelations that there was a clandestine uranium enrichment facility inside a mountain—to shield it from air strikes—in Fordow, outside the Shia holy capital of Qom.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continued its efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Tehran. In negotiations between the P5+1 (the United States, the UK, China, France, Russia, and Germany) and Iran in Geneva in October 2009, Tehran initially appeared to agree to swap 80 percent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in return for fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces isotopes for medical use. Within two days, however, President Ahmadinejad’s opponents in Tehran had mobilized against the deal and Iran denied that any agreement had been made. Russian efforts to salvage the agreement in Vienna several weeks later also proved fruitless.

Karim Sadjadpour

Facing a looming United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution in May 2010, Tehran—in an agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil—attempted to revive the deal. But given that Iran had doubled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and had begun enriching to a level closer to weapons grade, the P5+1 rejected the arrangement and proceeded with Security Council resolutions and sanctions.

From Engagement to Coercion

When efforts to engage Tehran failed to render tangible results within a year, the Obama administration—exhorted by an impatient U.S. Congress—shifted to a strategy of subjecting Iran to escalating economic pressure in order to compel it to make meaningful and binding nuclear compromises. While states like Russia and China, as well as some European countries, thwarted efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran during the George W. Bush era, they gradually came to recognize that Iranian intransigence, not America’s unwillingness to engage, was the greater danger. International support grew behind the Obama administration’s effort to establish a sanctions regime whose breadth and depth has exceeded all expectations.

In addition to a sixth United Nations Security Council resolution censuring Iran, the most draconian of these sanctions have been unilateral U.S. and European Union (EU) measures. In December 2011, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to sanction Iran’s central bank, forcing countries and companies around the world—particularly in the energy sector—to essentially choose between doing business with Iran or America. In January 2012, the EU—which once accounted for around 20 percent of Iran’s oil exports—banned its members from importing Iranian oil. Shortly thereafter, SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), which facilitates secure global financial transactions, announced it would sever its ties to Iranian financial institutions.

The international pressure, coupled with Iran’s endemic mismanagement, has caused economic conditions in the country to severely deteriorate. During Obama’s presidency, Iran’s oil production has dropped from 4.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) to 2.7 mbpd. Its oil exports have dropped equally precipitously, falling from 2.5 mbpd to .9 mbpd. The country’s official inflation rate has risen to 29 percent, though some unofficial estimates are double that number. Unemployment and underemployment remain rampant. And Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost nearly 80 percent of its value vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar, spurring popular protests in October 2012 with chants of “Forget about Syria, think about us.”

Khamenei the Decider

Despite unprecedented and growing economic coercion, there has been no indication that Khamenei is reconsidering his long-held philosophy that giving in to pressure is a sign of weakness that only results in more pressure. “If you supplicate, withdraw and show flexibility,” Khamenei frequently says, “arrogant powers will make their threat more serious.” What’s more, the example that Khamenei has drawn from recent history is that Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s 2002 abdication of his nuclear program made him vulnerable to the 2012 intervention that resulted in his overthrow, whereas Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons turned foreign pressure into engagement.

In his twenty-three-year tenure as supreme leader, Khamenei has sought to preserve the status quo by eschewing transformative decisions. As Iran’s economy continues to deteriorate, however, Khamenei may soon conclude that he must choose one of two options to try and win sanctions relief: a nuclear deal or a nuclear weapon.

Despite Khamenei’s aversion to compromise, a decision to pursue nuclear weapons is fraught with enormous risks. Overt signs of weaponization—such as the expulsion of nuclear inspectors or the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade—are likely to trigger U.S. or Israeli military action.

Moreover, the acquisition of nuclear weapons would open up a whole new set of challenges for Tehran. It could, for instance, prompt Iran’s neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to take countervailing steps, including intensifying defense cooperation and procurement arrangements with the United States, France, and others. Or Tehran’s neighbors could choose to begin their own nuclear power programs to signify potential future military options. They could even foment unrest among disgruntled minorities within Iranian territory and further constrict trade with Iran.

Khamenei must calculate whether his regime can sustain severe and escalating economic pressure during the time it would take to acquire a sufficient nuclear deterrent.

Unless Khamenei wants to provoke a military attack on Iran in an attempt to resuscitate revolutionary ideology and repair the country’s internal rifts (an improbable but not implausible prospect), he will continue to favor a deliberate, incremental approach to the development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. But Khamenei faces a dilemma if he actually wants to develop nuclear weapons. He must calculate whether his regime can sustain severe and escalating economic pressure during the time it would take to acquire a sufficient nuclear deterrent. He must also consider the possibility that foreign intelligence services have penetrated Iran’s nuclear facilities and prepared various obstacles—computer viruses, “accidental” explosions, mysterious assassinations, and defections—that could set Iran’s nuclear clock back even further.

Are these challenges enough to force Khamenei into a compromise?

Striking a Deal

On the other side of the coin, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 must decide whether they are prepared to offer Iran incentives that would be sufficient to induce it to compromise, and what a potential U.S.-Iran nuclear breakthrough might look like.

The long U.S. presidential campaign offered many opportunities for partisans to say what a potential deal should forbid Iran from doing. Unsurprisingly, some demanded that Iran should be left with “no capability” to make nuclear weapons. Such positions, though often vaguely worded, seemed to require Iran to “end its nuclear program”—that is, cease all uranium enrichment. That would certainly be ideal from a nonproliferation standpoint, but there is virtually no chance that Iran will abdicate what it and many developing countries now insist is a right—enrichment.

The practical question, then, is what specific commitments could be negotiated, verified, and enforced to keep Iran far enough away from having a nuclear weapon that the world would have confidence it could detect an Iranian breakout and mobilize an appropriately robust response, and at the same time allow Iran to exercise its “right” to enrich for purely civilian purposes.

Such a deal would have to include commitments by Iran not to undertake specific experiments, import certain materials, and engage in other activities that would be vital to making nuclear weapons and therefore illegitimate for a peaceful nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already identified some nuclear weaponization benchmarks and others could be specified. In essence, the United States and its partners would be asking Iran to verify Khamenei’s repeated religious declarations that his country would not seek nuclear weapons.

The establishment of detailed and mutually agreed boundaries between Iran’s nuclear program and a nuclear weapons program could give tolerable confidence that Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium to power-reactor levels (below 5 percent) could be acceptable. In addition to saving face domestically, continued enrichment would give Khamenei and other wary leaders leverage to keep the United States from reneging on its commitments. Iran could ratchet up the level of enrichment in a tit-for-tat response to failures by the United States or others to keep their side of any deal.

Such an agreement would also require the United States and the EU to ease the most punishing sanctions, namely, those against Iran’s central bank, the EU oil embargo, and SWIFT financial sanctions.

Negotiating such a detailed deal is made more difficult by the fact that the main antagonists—the governments of Iran and the United States—deeply and bitterly mistrust and loathe each other (which is not the case for societal relations between the two). Indeed, one of the fundamental—and potentially insurmountable—challenges in reaching a nuclear resolution with Iran is Khamenei’s deep-seated belief that Washington’s underlying goal is to change the Iranian regime, not merely change its behavior.

Reassuring Khamenei otherwise, however, is complicated by the fact that he believes America’s strategy to overthrow the Islamic Republic hinges not on military invasion but on cultural and political subversion intended to foment a “soft” or “velvet” revolution from within. To Khamenei, U.S. criticism of Iran’s human rights record, its sponsorship of Persian language media broadcasts such as Voice of America, and the power of Hollywood are all symbols of America’s cultural-cum-political subversiveness. In other words, Khamenei feels threatened not only by what America does, but by what America is.

Khamenei feels threatened not only by what America does, but by what America is.

Herein lies Washington’s policy conundrum: no nuclear deal with Tehran can be made without Khamenei, yet there are few signs that a binding nuclear resolution can be made with him. In effect, Khamenei’s obstinacy has the potential to make his fear of regime change a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Khamenei and his close colleagues are too proud and suspicious to ask for “guarantees” that the United States will not pursue regime change in Iran. But the United States has to address this issue in some way if a nuclear deal is to be completed and war avoided. American values, interests, and politics preclude halting support for democracy and human rights in Iran. The United States will not be silent in the event of popular uprisings in Iran or if Tehran threatens Israel or other neighbors. Nor will the United States stop facilitating the free flow of information and communications into Iran.

But if Tehran verifiably upholds a suitable arrangement not to move closer to nuclear weapons, the United States could plausibly commit not to take physical actions to unseat the Iranian government. Such a commitment could be verified to the extent that the United States (and others) is presumably undertaking covert actions against the Iranian government that Iran’s leadership is aware of even if the Iranian public is not. The United States could stop those covert actions if Iran negotiated and upheld a suitable nuclear deal, and the Iranian leadership would be able to verify the cessation.

The Way Forward

Amid more than three decades of compounded mistrust and ill-will, a full resolution of the U.S.-Iran nuclear dispute is highly unlikely absent a broader political settlement between the two countries. Yet prospects for such a political settlement are scant until a leadership emerges in Tehran that begins to prioritize national and economic interests over ideological ones.

In this context, continued dialogue with Iran will be of use not necessarily to fully resolve the countries’ differences but to manage them in an effort to prevent the cold conflict from turning hot. The Obama administration’s unprecedented and unreciprocated overtures to Iran helped expose—to the world and to the Iranian people—the fact that Tehran, not Washington, is the intransigent actor in this equation. This has strengthened the breadth and the depth of the international coalition while at the same time widening Iran’s internal fractures.

In the absence of a long-term, binding resolution, the United States should aim to compel Iran to cap its nuclear development in exchange for relief from sanctions and covert action in Iran.

In the absence of a long-term, binding resolution, the United States should aim to compel Iran to cap its nuclear development in exchange for relief from sanctions and covert action in Iran. The goal of such diplomacy should be to put meaningful boundaries on Iran’s nuclear activities and contain its political influence in the region until the regime is eventually transformed or changed through the weight of its internal contradictions and economic malaise. It is likely only then that a long-term settlement can be reached.

When this might happen is entirely unpredictable, but events in the Arab world over the past two years serve as a reminder that the line between the seeming invincibility of dictators and their inevitable demise is thin. A deal centered on the nuclear issue could give Iran’s leaders, society, and the international community time to allow history to unfold without the unpredictable trauma of war.