The US president faces a tough decision on Iran. Brinkmanship has obviously failed to put an end to the nuclear weapons programme. Embargoes imposed by the UN have achieved little in making a dent on the leadership. Where coercion has obviously failed as a foreign policy tool, where does Washington go from here? Decision time for Barrack Obama has arrived.
While Israel has always opted for military action, the rationale for such a strike has been perceived to be fraught with too many unknown variables by the US. Domestic support for yet another overseas adventure is slim at best. That coupled with the possible fallout from a direct attack on Iran could very well spark a regional war embroiling other not-so-stable countries like Lebanon. Costs associated with a long-drawn conflict will run literally into hundreds of billions of dollar for the US treasury annually, money that is simply not there.
Yet, Washington cannot sit by and allow Iran time to develop a nuclear capability, a weapons programme that will almost certainly be aimed at the State of Israel. Diplomacy as a whole has taken a backseat as the Iran crisis has developed these last few years. Indeed, as Fareed Zakaria stated in his column in TIME magazine recently "while the sticks have been handled shrewdly, the carrots have not. The US has been unable to define for itself or for the world what would be an acceptable deal and, most important, what it is willing to do if Tehran agrees to such a deal. Would sanctions be lifted? Which ones? Would the US stop its efforts to overthrow the regime? Would it be willing to discuss normalisation of relations with Iran?" Valid questions all.
But then, making credible diplomatic overtures have their respective problems. Backing away from a bellicose tone to one of "carrot and stick" policy could be misinterpreted by Iranians as a softening of American position. Yet, a more balanced approach is now called for given that sanctions have not worked and outright military action is an extremely high risk option. Given the current scenario, i.e. Iranian legal export of oil facing serious constriction, estimates vary precisely how long the Iranian leadership can sustain the economy on current foreign exchange reserves. Even if this is a year down the line, and with all avenues cut off for an embattled regime, there is nothing to stop the Iranian government to allocate all available resources to develop at least one bomb. That is not a conducive scenario for either the West or Israel.
One possible solution to stop Iran from taking that drastic step has been discussed by Columbia University Scholar Robert Jervis. He states in his article (Getting to Yes with Iran. The challenges to Coercive Diplomacy): "In the most likely deal, Iran would agree to stop designing warheads and to refrain from enriching uranium above the 20% level. It would retain only limited stockpiles or uranium enriched to 5-20%, accept limits on the capacities of its enrichment facilities, allow robust inspections of its nuclear facilities, and agree to refrain from building facilities that the United States could not destroy. (Such a deal would permit the heavily fortified underground Fordow enrichment plant to remain open, since it is vulnerable to a US strike -- something that would displease the Israelis, whose own capabilities to overcome are insufficient Fordow's defences). In return, the United States would accept a limited Iranian enrichment programme, promise not to overthrow the regime (and maybe not to undermine it), and suspend sanctions that were imposed specifically in response to the nuclear programme." Such a deal could pave the possibility of normalisation of relations between Iran and the estranged West over the mid to long-term. But that step has to be taken, primarily by the US. For only the US can overcome Israel's obsession with an Iran having nuclear-enrichment capability.
The US must bring the Europeans into the fold to convince Israel that peace, and only a peaceful solution is the way forward. Engaging Iran in an armed conflict is not the solution; rather it will set the stage for a wider conflict whose outcome cannot be predicted. Overcoming deep-rooted suspicions on both sides of the negotiating table will take a lot of work by US policymakers. But that negotiation must begin now. And we are talking about serious negotiations here. The offer for truly credible negotiations and the first tentative steps will have to come from the Americans. Taking up the offer for genuine talks with the "great Satan" carries a lot of risk for the Iranian leadership. It may spark an internal struggle between hardliners and reformists. But it is a risk worth taking. No one gains from a conflict that will upset the relative peace Mid-East has enjoyed since the end of the second Iraq invasion.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.