Terms of Engagement

The Test We’re Giving Iran Is Rigged

Why Obama has to go bigger, much bigger, in making a deal with Iran -- or be prepared for a messy failure.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Be still, my heart. First Iranian President Hasan Rouhani embarks on a very charming charm offensive. Perhaps a breakthrough is at hand. But then he decides to forgo a handshake with President Barack Obama and skips lunch. We have seen through those Persian wiles: The spark, as my colleagues at Foreign Policy sadly concluded, "may be fading." But wait — our president calls their president on the phone, the first leader-to-leader contact since the 1979 revolution. Maybe there’s hope! Or maybe Obama’s been snookered?!

A lot of this is about us, not them. We have reached a mental state in which hopefulness feels like a species of naiveté. We seemed to have swiftly passed from not believing in military solutions to anything to not believing in any solutions at all. We’re on a bender of despair. Our once young, once thrillingly idealistic president glumly acknowledged to the U.N. General Assembly, "hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries." And God knows, it’s true. Every single one of the major Middle East conflicts he passed in review — Syria, Libya, Egypt — has offered a wrenching demonstration of the limits of America’s power to keep people in faraway places from tearing one another limb from limb.

But Iran is different, and I think Obama, at least, understands that difference very well. The United States is trying not to reach inside the country, but rather to offer some mix of threats and incentives to the nation’s leaders in order to alter their external behavior. That’s called diplomacy; it’s what states have always done, with greater or lesser success. In rare cases, it’s true, states operate beyond the reach of both carrots and sticks. Over the past 30 years, Iran has arguably been just such a "rogue state." The great question that the West now faces is whether the election of Rouhani, and the tiny hints of accommodation from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, mean that Iran is now biddable.

No one knows the answer to that question; thus Obama’s extremely cautious statement before the United Nations that "the roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested." This is not, itself, a controversial proposition: Even the Democratic and Republican senators who have recently written letters to Obama admonishing him to keep the pressure turned up high on Iran agree that we need to test the leadership’s bona fides. But administering a test that the other side is bound to fail isn’t diplomacy.

That’s where we are now. The United States and its five partners in the so-called P5+1 are demanding that Iran stop all uranium enrichment activities, turn over all highly enriched uranium, and accept intrusive inspections in return for a very modest increase in trade and a promise of future sanctions relief. This is a one-sided deal that could only be imposed on a nation that felt it had no choice but to accept humiliation. For Iran, it’s a nonstarter.

Previous Iranian negotiators have rejected any deal that does not vouchsafe the country’s alleged right to enrichment or offer a clear path to a future without sanctions. If the ayatollah has also allowed Rouhani to "test" the West’s commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully, sticking to the current formula would be all the proof he and other hard-liners need that the West is really trying to bring Iran to its knees.

This is why many diplomats and nonproliferation experts have advocated a "big for big" solution in which the United States wins major concessions from Iran by making large concessions of its own; former State Department official Robert Einhorn offered a blueprint for such a transaction in an article in FP earlier this year. One element of such a plan would be an agreement that Iran could continue to enrich uranium to the low concentrations necessary for peaceful purposes so long as it allows inspections intrusive enough to ensure that no undeclared nuclear material has been diverted. If Iran balked at such a deal, the West would have good reason to conclude that Iran’s leadership had decided to achieve weapons capacity come what may.

That’s a test. And it’s a test Iran might even pass. According to notes from Rouhani’s meeting with a group of regional experts convened by the Asia Society, Iran’s president asserted that his country is seeking to find a mutually acceptable solution, work with the P5+1, and act with full transparency and within the parameters of international law. He said that the Iranians would be willing to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access and meet the international safeguard agreement — and, further, that Iran is willing to work toward removing all ambiguity surrounding its program (but will never forgo the right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology).

But so far, Obama hasn’t been willing to apply that test; the politics have just been too excruciating. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who calls Rouhani "a wolf in sheep’s clothing," steadfastly opposes leaving Iran with any enrichment capacity. So does most of the U.S. Senate. The letter that Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. John McCain sent to Obama insisted, in what has become boilerplate language, on "the suspension of all enrichment and reprocessing activities." A spokesman confirmed that "Senator Schumer does not support any Iranian nuclear enrichment at all."

Obama couldn’t defy Congress on this — even if he was politically prepared to do so — since legislators must agree to roll back the sanctions that are crushing Iran’s economy. And if Congress won’t undo the sanctions so long as Iran retains an ongoing enrichment capacity, then Iranians won’t agree to intrusive inspections, at which point any possible deal collapses. This will constitute the opposite of a "test," though it will allow congressional hawks to claim that they have proved Iran’s intransigence. Diplomacy will thus fail without actually having been attempted.

And then what? Does Obama exercise the "military option" to prevent Iran from going nuclear? Both Netanyahu and congressional leaders have said that he must be prepared to do so, and Obama has complied by saying that he will confront rather than "contain" Iran. But a lot has changed in recent months, and not just in Tehran. The American people resoundingly rejected Obama’s plan to fire a few missiles into Syria. Of course Iran, unlike Syria, is much more of a threat to American national security, but a massive strike against Iran, unlike a "shot across the bow" in Syria, would look very much like a war in the Middle East. I’m guessing that neither liberal Democrats nor libertarian Republicans will stand for it. How resolutely will, say, Sen. Marco Rubio demand a fusillade of Tomahawks? Given Rubio’s abrupt volte-face on Syria, the question answers itself.

The alternative to diplomacy, in short, may be futility. For this reason, some legislators have pushed back against the hard line. Over the summer, North Carolina Democrat David Price and Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent sent their own letter to Obama asking for a new diplomatic initiative; they got 131 signatures, 18 of them from GOP congressmen. Many others urged them on from the sidelines. I spoke to Dent, who’s very much a traditional conservative. In the aftermath of the brutal Syria debate, he said, "I don’t think the president would attack Iran or anywhere else in the world. That leaves us with diplomacy or sanctions. That’s why we have to try an overture." Dent blames Obama for hollowing out the credibility of military action, but he himself opposed the attack on Syria. Republicans will say it’s Obama’s fault, but it’s their own constituents they’re worried about.

This is, I admit, a very tiny opening for the president to squeeze through. Any deviation from the current formula will provoke the wrath of Congress and the Israel lobby. But Obama has got to break the stalemate. He has to show the Iranians that a meaningful end state lies beyond the painful concessions they will have to make. He has to be prepared to widen the scope of negotiations, including by offering Iran a place at the table in any future negotiations over the fate of Syria. There is no danger of excessive optimism here; everything that this president has touched in the Middle East has turned to dust. But in this one case his cautious, uncertain, all-too-easily reproachable statecraft just might yield a triumph of immense proportions.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.