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Time to Talk

What Michael Singh gets wrong about "next steps" with Iran.


Michael Singh’s article "Debating Next Steps on Iran" contributes to a conversation that The Iran Project had hoped to stimulate with its recent report, "Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy." While not agreeing with some of his misinterpretations and assertions, I welcome his opening the debate.

Singh’s article urges the retention of existing pressure, refraining from improving the U.S. offer in negotiations, setting red lines and enhancing the credibility of U.S. military determination. That is in essence the current position of the Obama administration. Our report agrees that keeping up the pressure is an important component in getting to a nuclear agreement. The report stresses that the United States should only consider suspending or relieving some sanctions when it is assured that there is reciprocal action by Iran that will advance U.S. objectives as defined by the president.

Yet while I agree with Mr. Singh’s contention that a nuclear agreement with Iran would be a "consequence" of Iran’s strategic shift rather than the "cause" of such a shift, experience shows that regular direct talks with Iran would be essential for the United States to determine whether such a shift is taking or has taken place. In regular direct exchanges, the United States needs to learn more of what Iran is seeking in order to advance American interests. It is important to understand from these contacts — as well as from other analyses, as Singh suggests — whether Iran’s regime may be deciding to reach a nuclear deal in order to retain power, to respond better to the mounting crises in their neighborhood, and to recover from the damage that has been wrought by the sanctions and their own mismanagement of the economy. More information informs better decision-making, not less.

Mr. Singh says that diplomacy does not mean "being nice" but is "just the conduct of relations between states — means of communications." He is absolutely correct in this. Diplomacy is often derided by those who have not sat directly across the table from America’s toughest adversaries, as many of the cosigners of our report have. Singh seems concerned that the "diplomacy" that is advocated in our report is in the "being nice" category. His view could not be further from the truth. In conducting diplomatic business between states there is usually more "pressure" than there is "being nice." The test of good diplomacy is whether it is achieving U.S. objectives by drawing on the formidable and multifaceted aspects of American power. The most effective diplomats are those who can leverage pressure and power to achieve U.S. objectives with another government — friend or foe. That is the type of diplomacy that we are calling for, and that we believe the Obama administration has begun to advance.

Our report advocates diplomacy with Iran that will advance U.S. interests by opening regular communications in order to understand what is possible. With the exception of a few and short-lived initiatives, the United States has had virtually no bilateral communications with Iran over the past nearly 35 years. There are many unknowns. Through direct, frequent, and official talks with Iran, the United States can determine whether achieving the vital objective of improved monitoring and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program is possible. It is time to determine whether we can leverage the sanctions and other pressures that the U.S. government has so effectively created, to bring about a deal that will help us to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to avoid another disastrous American war in the Middle East.

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