Briefing Book

How to Engage Iran (If You Must)

Tehran has mastered the dark arts of deception and delay. Here’s how Obama can cut through the diplomatic fog and get results.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

After months of dithering and delay, the Iranian government appears to have grudgingly accepted the U.S. president’s diplomatic overtures. Just shy of the deadline for dialogue set by the White House, the Islamic Republic has announced its readiness to offer new "proposals" for talks over its nuclear program.

The move is a political victory of sorts for Obama, who has made "engagement" with Iran a centerpiece of his Middle East policy. But it might end up being a Pyrrhic victory. If true to form, Iran will likely try to use the upcoming talks with Washington the same way it did previous ones with Europe — as a way to play for time and add permanence to its nuclear project. For Obama to convince Iran’s rulers that the costs of their nuclear effort will far outweigh the perceived benefits, talking alone won’t be enough; the White House will need real leverage over Tehran.

This begins with economic pressure. Contrary to conventional wisdom about the inefficacy of sanctions, U.S. measures against Iranian banks and institutions have had a real impact on Tehran’s ability to engage in international commerce in recent years. So much so that Iran’s former finance minister, Davoud Danesh Jafari, warned his staff last spring before leaving office that the Iranian government had "embarked on a serious and breathtaking game of chess with America’s Treasury Department." Such measures should be strengthened, and their potential scope expanded, as a way of preventing Iran’s trading partners from concluding that the onset of negotiations represents a green light to return to "business as usual."

Also on the table is a gasoline embargo. Systematically targeting Iran’s deep dependence on foreign refined petroleum may not be a silver bullet for changing Iran’s behavior. But, given the latent vulnerabilities in Iran’s energy sector (including a refining shortfall projected to continue until at least 2013 and flagging foreign direct investment), there is real reason to think that a gas embargo can be effective, if only in the near term. The same is true of steps that target Iran’s ability to physically import and export energy, all of which are under consideration by the U.S. Congress.

But economic pressure alone will not suffice, particularly if Tehran thinks, as it appears to, that such pressure is Washington’s only weapon. A credible threat of force is also necessary. As military professionals have stressed, a range of military options — even if politically unpalatable — is technically feasible. They are also essential to the success of U.S. diplomacy. Without such a coercive component, the Iranian regime will remain convinced that there are no consequences to its failure to change course. Iran’s leaders need to know that the United States is aware of their strategic intentions and prepared to use force to stop them if necessary.

Perhaps most vital, however, is an accurate reading of the "human terrain" within the Islamic Republic. Iran is a country in the throes of a profound demographic transformation. Its population of 70 million is overwhelmingly young; nearly half is age 24 or younger, according to official regime statistics. Iran’s ruling elite, by contrast, is aging and infirm — and increasingly unpopular. Since this summer’s controversial presidential election, Iran’s ayatollahs have been weathering an unprecedented challenge to their legitimacy. But without Western support, Iran’s pro-democracy stirrings are likely to wither on the vine, as Iran’s ayatollahs consolidate power and purge dissent.

This matters a great deal. By sheer dint of demographics, Iran will be a very different place in a few years as a younger generation takes the reins of power from the current clerical set. In its outreach to the Iranian government, Washington needs to remember that the real center of gravity in Iran in the years ahead will be the Iranian "street," not its seminaries — and it needs to work to preserve the potential for change now visible there.

Most immediately, Washington must prevent dialogue from becoming a vehicle for Iran’s strategic ambitions. In 2006, Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, famously boasted that his government had used negotiations with the EU "troika" (Great Britain, France, and Germany) to play for time on its nuclear program. "When we were negotiating with the Europeans in Tehran, we were still installing some of the equipment at the Isfahan site," Rowhani is reported to have said at the time. "In reality, by creating a tame situation, we could finish Isfahan."

Today, the most pressing task for the White House is to make sure that history does not repeat itself. The Iranian regime needs to know that the timeline for talks is not indefinite and that it cannot use engagement to run out the clock and cross the nuclear threshold. Nor should it expect that dialogue with Washington will yield a "grand bargain" that legitimizes its deep support for international terrorism or its hegemony over the Middle East. Otherwise, the Obama administration — like so many others before it — will soon rue its diplomatic dalliance with Tehran.

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