For more than three decades, the United States has relied more heavily on the pressure track than on the diplomatic track of its “dual-track” Iran policy. While this strategy has been successful in some ways, a cycle of pressure and resistance to pressure has brought the United States and Iran to a standoff.

It is time to recalibrate. Washington should now dedicate as much energy and creativity to dealing directly with Iran as it has to assembling a broad international coalition to pressure and isolate Iran. Only by taking such a rebalanced approach might the US achieve its objectives with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. Progress on the nuclear issues could lead to a broader dialogue with Iran that advances other US interests and goals in the Middle East.

A strengthened diplomatic track would not replace the pressure track; rather, it would build on pressure already applied. Some measure of sanctions relief would have to be offered as part of a negotiated nuclear settlement, but pressure should not be eased without firm and verifiable Iranian commitments to greater transparency and agreed limits on Iran’s nuclear program. Bilateral discussions between the US and Iran also would not replace the multilateral negotiations that are now under way. Bilateral talks about key nuclear issues would have to proceed on a basis understood and ideally supported by the P5+1 (members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and US allies…

  • We recognize that many of Iran’s policies and actions constitute a serious challenge to US interests and security, as well as to the security of Israel, and possibly to stability in the Middle East. Even as international opposition to Tehran’s policies has grown, the Iranian regime’s own actions continue to reinforce the perception that Iran is a threat to regional and global security. Some aspects of Iran’s nuclear program — including possible military dimensions and the production of low-enriched uranium in the absence of an active program to construct the nuclear reactors that would use such fuel — have raised concerns about the exclusively peaceful purposes of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran bears substantial responsibility for the mutual suspicion and hostility that defines its relationships with the United States and with other nations, including in the Middle East. That state of mutual hostility has helped to perpetuate US policies designed to pressure and isolate Iran and to restrict its role in the region.
  • We believe, nonetheless, that the time is right for a reexamination of the United States’ policy approach, even while Iran continues to expand its nuclear program and support Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Assad regime in Syria, among other deeply problematic behaviors. The re-election of President Obama, the pending election of a new Iranian President in the summer of 2013, and the toll that is being taken on Iran’s leadership and people by escalating international sanctions, have opened up some space for testing new diplomatic approaches. There likely will continue to be mixed and defiant messages coming from Iran. Nonetheless, we see indications that the environment in 2013 may be conducive to trying a new approach.
  • We acknowledge that lack of success in the past makes it difficult to be optimistic about any new efforts to work with Iran. Mindful of that reality, we have drawn on lessons from the past to craft a set of options for going forward that we believe could improve the chances of such an initiative getting serious attention in Tehran. Our recommendations do assume that Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei might eventually be willing to negotiate a deal with the United States on core nuclear issues; some experts (including a few signatories to this paper) doubt the validity of that assumption. All of the authors and signatories, however, hold that the United States should persist in its efforts to find a diplomatic or political solution as long as Iran does not decide to build a nuclear weapon.
  • While we call for a significant recommitment of time and energy to the diplomatic side of the traditional two-track approach to Iran, we also recognize that the use of military force may well become more likely, should it become evident that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. In urging enhancement of the diplomatic track, we are not suggesting that the pressure track be abandoned. We are persuaded that pressure alone will not be sufficient to produce significant changes in Iran’s nuclear policies; an active diplomatic track with real incentives for Iran to cooperate will be necessary to get results. But we fully acknowledge that in dealing with a dangerous and threatening adversary, the pressure track is essential to making the diplomatic track effective. We believe, additionally, that an active diplomatic track is necessary to keep the pressure track from being misunderstood in Tehran as an effort to force regime change.
  • We note that the prolonged lack of contact between the United States and Iran is, in part, a reflection of America’s historical reluctance to deal with foreign governments whose principles and practices are at odds with this country’s values. Dealing with such regimes has been seen by some policymakers as “rewarding” them without justification. For years, the United States kept such undemocratic “enemies” as the Soviet Union and China at arm’s length — a policy that was ultimately reversed, in both instances, with beneficial results for US national interests and security. By withholding diplomatic contact from important countries whose behavior it deplores, the United States has sometimes lost opportunities to learn about their leaders’ priorities and motivations — which hurts us at least as much, if not more, than them. At important junctures, this policy has meant forfeiting the opportunity to resolve problems peacefully or to advance important American objectives that could be achieved only through the active cooperation of other states. We have been mindful of this history, and its lessons, in writing this paper.

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