Time for Engagement with Iran

On the surface, US-Iran relations are reaching a fevered pitch. The assassination of an Iranian scientist, possibly part of a covert campaign against Iran's nuclear program, is just the latest in a series of troubling developments. Iran has begun enriching uranium at its Fordo facility, expressed defiance of harsh economic sanctions from the West, and continues to threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. In the US, loud calls for a military strike against Iran are increasing the tension.

Despite all of this, the situation isn’t as bad as it seems. In fact, there are a number of indications that the US has a unique window of opportunity right now to return to engagement with Iran.

First, take a closer look at Iran’s most recent threat, to close the Strait of Hormuz. Twenty percent of the world’s oil supply passes through the Straits; closing it could have a disastrous effect on global oil prices. However, the Iranian threat seems more bluster than substance. Closing the Strait wouldn’t just hurt the US economy - it would hurt Iran’s as well. And even if Iran were willing to take this risk, it couldn’t hold out for long against those determined to keep the Straits open. “I think that they understand the risks that they run,” former NSC advisor Dennis Ross said. “If you look at their historical behavior, for all their tough talk, they don’t go out of their way unnecessarily to provoke” retaliation.

Iran doesn’t want a war with the West, and for good reason. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the tough economic sanctions imposed by the US and allies, combined with internal political unrest and international isolation, have had an effect: “Iran is weak, and getting weaker.”

A war would certainly not be in US interests either. Besides the obvious economic and political costs, a military strike would only set Iran’s nuclear program back a few years. It could also be counterproductive, uniting Iran in a determination to build a bomb.

Another option - increasing economic pressure - will also prove counterproductive. Brookings expert Suzanne Maloney explains, “The more Washington corners Tehran the higher the value of a nuclear deterrent becomes in the eyes of the leadership.”

This brings us to the window of opportunity. The next step in US sanctions - the sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank - won’t go into effect for another six months. This gives the US time to explore diplomatic options, before following through on measures that could cause tensions to spiral out of control.

This window of opportunity could not come at a better time. Despite its hardline rhetoric, Iran has expressed a willingness to return to nuclear talks. A new round of P5+1 talks, hosted by Turkey, could jumpstart diplomatic negotiations.

Make no mistake, engaging Iran will not be easy. “The slow, elusive diplomatic process,” as former Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering call it, “does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action.” But the benefits are clear: “Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost.”

The window of opportunity to avoid a war that no one wants won’t last forever. It’s time to reach out to Iran.

Photo by Ed Hale