A Way Out for Obama on Iran?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 11:08 AM EDT

Obama seems to be walking into an either/or trap with Iran: convince China and Russia to back tougher sanctions on Iran that are not likely to persuade the thuggish regime of Tehran to give up its nuclear program or engage in military action that would not put a permament end to Iran's nuclear ambitions but could destabilize the region (especially Iraq). What to do?

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, both former National Security Council staff members, propose a third way in a New York Times op-ed. They write:

Instead of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.

On that basis, America and Iran would forge a comprehensive framework for security as well as economic cooperation — something that Washington has never allowed the five-plus-one group to propose. Within that framework, the international community would work with Iran to develop its civil nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities on Iranian soil, in a transparent manner rather than demanding that Tehran prove a negative — that it’s not developing weapons. A cooperative approach would not demonize Iran for political relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah, but would elicit Tehran’s commitment to work toward peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.

Not demonizing Iran? That may be tough, given how easy it is to demonize a government led by repressive brutes who suppress dissent and deny the Holocaust. But the Leveretts effectively sum up the lack of good choices. Essentially, their point is that sometimes you have to work with someone who doesn't deserve the time of day. If sanctions may not succeed (other than to cause hardship on an Iranian public that the Iranian regime obviously doesn't care that much about), and if war is too uncontrollable and messy (and it is), then the United States might have no other alternative but real and comprehensive engagement.

The Leveretts write:

Some may say that this is too high a price to pay for improved relations with Iran. But the price is high only for those who attach value to failed policies that have damaged American interests in the Middle East and made our allies there less secure.

But even if such a course makes sense policy-wise, selling it to the public—while the Iranian government is in the hands of mullahs and tyrants—will be a tough task. The Leveretts don't suggest how Obama do so. That's above the pay grade.

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