The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran—bent on regional domination, aggressive toward Israel, and hostile to the United States—is as serious a threat as the United States has confronted in recent decades. For at least two key reasons, that threat will not be directly confronted with force in the short term. First, there are genuine questions about how close Iran is to nuclear weapons capabilities. Estimates differ and are inconclusive. After the intelligence failure in Iraq, standards of proof are high, and policymakers in Washington and in capitals abroad will demand more certainty before taking aggressive action. Second, U.S. military capabilities, regional influence, and diplomatic leverage are effectively reduced by the grinding conflict in Iraq, making the prospect of a second simultaneous conflagration in the Middle East both politically and militarily untenable.
For now, containing the threat posed by Iran will center on diplomatic measures aimed at dissuading the Iranian regime from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, sustaining international unity in opposition to Tehran’s weapons program, and preventing escalation of the conflict to a point where force is the sole remaining option. The policy will amount to a carefully calibrated, hands-on holding pattern designed to draw out the problem to a point where it can be solved diplomatically and politically or where circumstances have changed to make the use of force feasible.
In this context, questions will arise about whether Washington is right to refuse direct talks with the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Current U.S. policy is that as long as Tehran declines to suspend uranium enrichment, direct talks are off-limits. The reasons for spurning face-to-face negotiations are clear enough. Ahmadinejad is a sworn enemy of Israel and a Holocaust denier. He has thumbed his nose at serious offers by the United States, Europe, China, and Russia to strike a bargain for economic and political rewards in return for nuclear safeguards. In engaging directly with such a leader, the United States risks dignifying and publicizing his cause. Ahmadinejad seems bent on positioning Iran as a power with global stature, and going toe-to-toe with Washington could advance that aspiration. There’s also little to suggest that direct talks between countries with competing worldviews and strategic objectives will bear fruit. After all, the United States and Iran do communicate regularly through foreign intermediaries and the media, such that each knows the other’s bottom line. Talking to Tehran is neither a solution to the crisis in itself, nor is it particularly likely to lead to one.
Although talking to Tehran will not end the brewing nuclear standoff, it could advance Washington’s goal of keeping a lid on it long enough for more appealing policy alternatives to ripen. The United States would not need to change its position on the acceptability of an Iranian nuclear ...
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