Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen stressed the need for the U.S. to maintain open channels of communication with the government of Iran.
"Even in the darkest days of the Cold War," Mullen said, "we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other." Asked whether he was "specifically talking about military to military contact, or a broader set of engagement between the two countries," Mullen replied, "I'm talking about any channel that's open. We've not had a direct link of communication with Iran since 1979...Any channel would be terrific."
While President Obama made talking to Iran a central element of his foreign policy agenda upon taking office, no one expected that it would be easy. Over the last three years, Iran's leaders have done nothing to change that pessimism. Always skeptical of the prospect of negotiating with Iran, U.S. conservatives have criticized President Obama's engagement policy from the start. Most recently, in his first big foreign policy address last Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry scolded President Obama for "wasting precious time on a naïve policy of outreach" to Iran.
Even some early supporters of Obama's engagement policy have lost hope. In a New York Times op-ed this summer, the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: "Washington must appreciate that it is locked in a prolonged struggle for regional influence with one of its least predictable foes." In order to prevail in this conflict, the authors continued, "Washington must abandon any expectation that Tehran can be seduced or coerced to the negotiating table."
These sentiments are understandable. Almost two years have passed since the U.S. last held direct face-to-face talks with Iran in Vienna, a meeting which appeared to produce a deal in which Iran would transfer 75 percent of its Low Enriched Uranium stock for conversion to nuclear fuel. Brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with the backing of Russia and France, and supported by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the deal soon fell apart after the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei rejected it, and was therefore abandoned. Iran has still not suspended its uranium enrichment program, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696.
But while negotiations with Iran have not yet achieved their primary goal -- a solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program -- they have not been without important benefits.
Since President Obama agreed to talk directly to Iran almost three years ago, he has done more to isolate the Iranian government than President George W. Bush did in eight years in office. By engaging with the Islamic Republic, President Obama called its leaders' bluff. The Iranian government could no longer say that the U.S. is only interested in threatening and attacking Iran. Much to the disappointment of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, President Obama recognized the Islamic Republic and its leaders, and the U.S. government sat down and talked to their representatives.
While the P5+1 did not manage to convince the Iranian government to transfer 75 percent of Low Enriched Uranium in Vienna, the Obama administration's willingness to talk to Iran -- and Iran's refusal to make a deal -- enabled the U.S. to show the world (and, importantly, Iranians themselves) that it was Iran's leaders who were the impediment to reaching a deal. This move also brought Russia and China closer to the position of the U.S., as well as other partners who believed that tougher sanctions needed to be imposed on the Iranian government. The recent news that China has scaled back its investment in Iran's gas and oil sector should be particularly worrisome for Iran's leaders.
Obama's outstretched hand also made an impact on Iran's domestic politics. According to Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, Obama's efforts to engage helped power the Green movement's challenge to the regime. "Obama offered a dialog with the Iran," Ganji said, "and this change in discourse immediately gave rise to that outpouring of sentiment against the Islamic Republic" after June 2009's disputed presidential election. Similarly, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi said that, by showing a willingness to engage with Iran, Obama showed Iranians and the world "that it is the Iranian regime that doesn't want to talk." The specter of American hostility is a treasured propaganda tool of the Iranian regime. By engaging, President Obama denied them the use of this tool.
Negotiations with Iran have also done much to boost the credibility of the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 at the expense of the Iranian government. This was demonstrated after the revelation by the U.S. of a secret enrichment site in Fordo, in Central Iran. Had this revelation been made during the Bush era, it would have likely been met with considerably more skepticism. This time, however, the international community was much more receptive, precisely because of Obama's effort to reach out to the Iranian government. So was the IAEA, whose head at the time -- Mohammad El Baradei -- investigated the revelation and declared that Iran had operated on "the wrong side of the law".
Perhaps the biggest achievement of negotiations to date has been their facilitation of the imposition of tough international sanctions against the Iranian government and its nuclear program. As a recent IAEA report revealed, these sanctions have been instrumental in slowing the progress of the Iranian program. This view is now shared by former Israeli defense officials such as Gabi Ashkenazi, who in a speech at the Brookings Institution stated that sanctions were the best course of action against Iran. Meanwhile, in a recent visit to the IAEA, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor acknowledged that sanctions against Iran could work. Another Israeli security official, speaking on background in an interview with the authors, said that, while Israelis initially "were skeptical about a possible positive outcome of the negotiations" in respect to the nuclear issue, "we recognize that they contributed to building international consensus." The fact that such statements are being made by officials of a country skeptical of sanctions speaks volumes.
In short, far from being evidence of "naiveté," President Obama's engagement policy has served as an important force multiplier for efforts to pressure the Iranian government. Rather than "validating the mullahs," as former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty charged, Obama's policy has in fact further isolated them. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared at the United Nations last week politically diminished, and representing a regime that is more weakened and alone than it has been in years. And Ahmadinejad's ridiculous, conspiracy theory-laden speech to the UN General Assembly effectively killed whatever goodwill might have been generated by Iran's release of American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal two days earlier.
As the P5+1 continues to confront the challenges of Iran's nuclear program, it must also continue to use direct negotiations as its major tool. While experience supports a degree of pessimism about the prospects for a negotiated solution, abandoning the offer of talks with Iran would be the wrong move. Indeed, this would in fact relieve Iran's leaders of pressure. We lose nothing by this -- while we talk, Iran enriches. While we don't talk, Iran enriches. In addition to avoiding the sort of accidental flare-ups of which Adm. Mullen warned, keeping the door of negotiations open, while maintaining targeted sanctions, will keep open the space for Iran's leaders to compromise, and keep alive the chances of reaching the best possible scenario for the international community: finding a peaceful solution to Iran's nuclear program. True naiveté is believing that the problem can be adequately addressed through mere rhetorical bluster and threats of force, and continuing to shout at Iran across a chasm as the U.S. has done for the last 30 years.
Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran" and teaches the "Contemporary Iranian Politics" course at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. Matthew Duss is a National Security Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.