By Vali Nasr
March 14, 2012
Last week, President Barack Obama skillfully shifted the debate on Iran, pushing back against “idle talk of war” and making the case for diplomacy.
To make it work, the U.S. now needs a clear road map to show allies and the American people how serious and sustained talks with Iran can bear fruit.
Since November, the administration’s policy of applying pressure to compel Iran to negotiate has rushed instead toward conflict. A worrying International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear activity in that month prompted a new round of crippling sanctions against Iran’s central bank and oil industry. Iran responded by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and cut off oil sales to parts of Europe. Israel and the U.S. administration’s Republican critics concluded that the one- two punch of sanctions and talks wasn’t working, and it was time to go to war.
The president stood his ground to get the pressure-and-talk strategy back on track, and there are some hopeful signs that he did the right thing. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed Obama’s defense of diplomacy, describing the U.S. president’s talk of a window of opportunity as “good words.” He also repeated his 1995 fatwa that building nuclear weapons is a “great sin.”
This was meant as a clear signal to the international community that Iran would not cross Obama’s red line. Equally important, Khamenei’s intervention put an end to talk inside Iran that the country should now build nuclear weapons to protect itself against further Western pressure and any potential military attack. The fatwa and a straightforward letter from Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, declaring Iran’s readiness to resume talks has given the U.S. administration hope that this time, diplomacy may succeed. After all, the environment for the talks today is better than at any other time since Obama took office in 2009. Economic pressure on Iran is cutting to the bone, and a grave crisis looms if things don’t change.
At the same time, Iran’s parliamentary elections on March 2 to some extent repaired the political damage that Khamenei suffered in the 2009 election fiasco, when Iranian authorities jailed opposition leaders and violently suppressed large-scale protests against ballot-box fraud. The appearance of normality on voting day this month and the mandate Khamenei received when his supporters trounced those of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have left the supreme leader stronger. Ahmadinejad’s drubbing means there is now only one decision maker in Tehran — and to everyone’s relief, it is not Ahmadinejad.
But the window for negotiations is narrow. Whatever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have agreed to in his recent meeting with the U.S. president, in public he offered no endorsement of diplomacy. Obama’s critics on the right will look for the slightest opening to dismiss diplomacy as having failed and again push for war. Doing so would have the added benefit for them of potentially driving up oil prices at the cost of the fragile U.S. economic recovery, on which the outcome of the election hinges. Obama can protect diplomacy from politics, but only if he sees tangible gains early on.