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Presidential Candidate Issue Brief Number 3: Support Iran Diplomacy

Among other things, APN urges the embracing of a serious, success-oriented approach to the challenge of Iran


For years Iran's leaders have espoused virulently anti-U.S., anti-Israel positions, complemented by moral and financial support for extremists and terrorist organizations - including Hamas and Hezbollah.  The rise to power of President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad - arguably the most anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Iranian leader in history - has heightened concerns about Iran's intentions in the region and in the world.  These concerns have grown over the past decade, as Iran has tenaciously pursued a nuclear program. 
An Iran armed with nuclear weapons represents an alarming scenario that neither the U.S. nor Israel can afford to ignore, and one that the U.S. and the international community should be exerting all efforts to avoid.   A nuclear-armed Iran poses a potential existential threat to Israel and is likely to trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.  An unchecked rogue Iran will likely continue to use support for terrorist groups to further destabilize the region and threaten Israel and other vital U.S. interests, including in Iraq and Lebanon.  Moreover, in the absence of an effective international strategy to deal with Iran, domestic pressure for Israel to take matters into its own hands will continue to grow.
Unfortunately, instead of an orchestrated international effort to engage Iran and address these very serious issues, the U.S. has worked to ensure that the world follows its lead in adopting a one-dimensional strategy toward Iran - a strategy that seeks to threaten, browbeat, and sanction Iran into submission.  
This strategy has failed.  It has not stopped Iran's nuclear program or Iran's reckless meddling in the region. Perversely, it may even have had the opposite effect: Just as American politicians routinely bolster their patriotic credentials by talking tough about Iran, today Iranian hard-liners -- including Ahmadinejad -- burnish their own nationalist credentials with pledges to stand up to American "bullying." Indeed, such nationalist rhetoric is one of the only planks Iranian hard-liners have left to run on, given the domestic economic and social challenges facing their country.  It should surprise no one that pushed into a corner, many Iranians -- including those who don't support Ahmadinejad -- have come to view the nuclear program as a symbol of national honor and pride.
And while it is true that the United States has at times offered to engage Iran in a limited manner, such engagement has been preconditioned on Iran first freezing its nuclear program. This approach - in which, as a precondition to negotiations, Iran is required to take an action that from its perspective should be the outcome of negotiations - has been unsuccessful.  Preconditioning negotiations in this manner does not constitute genuine diplomacy.
Ahmadinejad is a populist rabble-rouser whose anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric is repugnant.  His country's support for terrorist groups throughout the region is abhorrent.  Nobody is suggesting that America's next President should embrace him.  
But just as clearly, demonizing Ahmadinejad while constantly reminding him that "all options are on the table" does not constitute the basis for a responsible or effective Iran policy.   Sanctions are indeed a potentially powerful tool for putting pressure on Iran, but they simply will not suffice as a replacement for diplomacy in resolving our differences. Clearly the option for military action is always available, but that option and even its threat must be reserved as the option of truly last resort.
Addressing the challenges posed by Iran requires a smarter strategy -- combining carrots and sticks, incentives and sanctions -- and strong U.S. direct engagement and leadership.   The next U.S. President does not have to like Ahmadinejad to engage in real diplomacy with his country, and engaging Iran in order to safeguard vital U.S. national security interests is not appeasement. Rather, as the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran underscored, it is the kind of sensible and responsible foreign policy that is long overdue. A bipartisan group of five former Secretaries of State, speaking together at a September 15, 2008 forum, agrees:
Madeleine Albright (who served under President Bill Clinton): "I believe we need to engage with Iran.  I think the whole point is you try to engage and deal with countries you have problems with.I think it's one of the most important relationships that we need to work on.  We are not gaining anything by this [current approach]."
Gen. Colin Powell (who served under President George W. Bush):  ".we should start to talk to them.  Don't wait for, you know, a letter coming from them.  Start discussions."
Warren Christopher (who served under President Bill Clinton):  ".our relationship with Israel needs to be strong enough so we can say to them 'Look, we want to have a comprehensive dialogue with the Iranians.'  We can't be complacent about the nuclear possibilities in Iran, but nevertheless we cannot afford not to have a comprehensive dialogue to see if it can't be stopped, because, frankly, the military options here are very, very poor."
James Baker (who served under President George H.W. Bush):  "We ought to engage.  Yes. We're all saying that you [the next U.S. President] ought to engage."
Henry Kissinger (who served under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford):  ".I am in favor of negotiating with Iran."
Such a diplomatic effort will not be easy; indeed it will almost certainly be a long and arduous process. Nor is its success a foregone conclusion. But such an effort is indispensable if the United States is serious about dealing with serious challenges to U.S. foreign policy goals and to U.S. national security interests posed by Iran. 
Americans for Peace Now urges the Presidential candidates to:

  • Enunciate a clear recognition that the current U.S. approach to Iran, consisting almost exclusively of sanctions and saber-rattling, has failed.
  • Embrace a serious, success-oriented approach to the challenge of Iran, involving a strategy of sticks and carrots - sanctions and meaningful incentives - and founded on direct, determined diplomacy with Iran, without preconditions;
  • Abandon casual rhetoric about U.S. or Israeli first-strike options, and discard the notion that the guiding policy of the U.S. must be that "all options are on the table."  Clearly, the option for military action is always available, but it must be reserved as the option of truly last resort.