The Iranian Dilemma

Dennis Ross, who held key State Department posts under the first Bush and was a special mid-East envoy for Clinton, has a nuanced discussion of the threat posed by Iran's attempt to gain nuclear weapons in today's Washington Post. His bottom line is that war against Iran would be very bad and so would Iran getting nuclear weapons. War would be difficult and expensive, possibly even calamitous for the US, but a nuclear Middle East would also be pretty bad. In either case, their is a significant threat that Mid-East oil might be lost for a long time, with huge economic effects.

His suggestion is that the US engage in direct talks with Iran, which would provide leverage to force Europe to agree to sanctions.
While one can argue that the Europeans were trying to negotiate something like this with the Iranians, they were never able to put together a package of credible sanctions and inducements, because the United States was not really a part of the effort. True, this country has coordinated with the British, French and Germans in the Bush second term. But a serious effort at raising the costs to the Iranians and offering possible gains has never been put together.

Why not now? Why not have the president go to his British, French and German counterparts and say: We will join you at the table with the Iranians, but first let us agree on an extensive set of meaningful -- not marginal -- economic and political sanctions that we will impose if the negotiations fail. Any such agreement would also need to entail an understanding of what would constitute failure in the talks and the trigger for the sanctions.

The Europeans have always wanted the Americans at the table. Agreeing on the sanctions in advance would be the price for getting us there. To be sure, the United States would focus as well on what could be provided to the Iranians, but the benefits have always been easier to agree on, particularly since meaningful sanctions will also impose a price on us. Real economic sanctions would not just bite Iran and its ability to generate revenue but also would undoubtedly drive up the price of oil. Our readiness to accept that risk at a time when high gasoline prices are becoming a domestic political issue would convey a very different signal about our seriousness to the Iranians -- who presently don't fear sanctions because they think they have the world over a barrel.

The Bushies have never been willing to do this, presumably out of some pride or (more likely) because they prefer posturing to actual constructive action. Ross adds:
There is no guarantee such an approach will work with Iran. This Iranian government may simply be determined to have nuclear weapons. If that is the case, and if President Bush is determined to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons -- as he has said -- we would still be better off having tried a direct negotiating option before resorting to what inevitably will be a difficult, messy use of force once again.
We can't even count on a cut off of Middle Eastern oil helping with global warming. Oil wells and pipelines might well be set on fire.

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