The fatwa from the Ayatollah last week blew away any near-term chance of a diplomatic opening with Iran. Vice President Biden’s earlier affirmation of a willingness to talk and Foreign Minister Salehi’s positive reply the next day briefly raised hopes, but the Leader’s dismissal abruptly ended any optimism.
The underlying need for a negotiated solution remains, however, and will grow more urgent if as expected talk of possible military action resurfaces in coming months. The core of a successful U.S. bargaining position and the outline of an eventual agreement with Iran have been identified by independent experts for many years. The political will for pursuing such a settlement does not exist right now in Washington, but it is important nonetheless to state the truth, even if decision makers refuse to listen.
Imposing more pressure on Iran will not work. This approach has been tried repeatedly for years but has not halted the advance of Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions have caused serious harm to the Iranian economy but have not changed the regime’s political character. On the contrary, the octogenarian rulers in Iran seem to have grown even more reactionary and unyielding.
To break through the Leader’s reluctance will take a significant initiative from the United States. We know what we want from Tehran: binding limits on its nuclear program, assurances that it is not building a bomb, and more rigorous international monitoring. What are we prepared to offer in return?
If Tehran permits more intrusive inspections and guarantees the peaceful character of its nuclear program, the United States should accept Iranian enrichment and begin to lift sanctions. With each step toward greater Iranian transparency we should further ease sanctions, aiming toward the normalization of economic and political relations.
Reaching these goals will require a long journey, given the historical animosity between Washington and Tehran and the divisiveness of these issues. A negotiated solution is indispensable, though, and is the only way to prevent proliferation and avoid war.