July 17, 2014
A viable diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear quest requires an agreement that verifiably limits its nuclear program to prevent it from attaining nuclear weapons capability. Iranian leaders, by all accounts, are loath to make concessions necessary to attain such a deal. Motivating them to accept such conditions should be a primary objective for the Obama Administration, which has pledged both to "use all elements of American power to prevent a nuclear Iran" and that a "bad deal is worse is than no deal." A good deal, however, still appears remote.
While the impact of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) on Iran's calculus can be debated, the Iranian leadership today appears to be under less compulsion to compromise now than at the outset of the JPA interim period on January 20, leaving wide gaps between the two sides on the parameters for a comprehensive settlement. These gaps must be overcome quickly to secure a peaceful negotiated solution that prevents Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capability.
To achieve this, U.S. diplomatic engagement must be accompanied by greater pressure. Iranian concessions will only come if Tehran believes it has more to lose than its counterparts, should negotiations fail. To peacefully prevent a nuclear Iran, American policymakers must use all available instruments of coercive diplomacy to restore credibility to their mantra that the United States is keeping all options on the table. They must do this promptly and resolutely.
The Obama Administration can undertake several mutually-reinforcing steps to bolster its leverage at the negotiating table: conditioning further sanctions relief on dramatic and verifiable rollback of Iran's nuclear program; working more closely with Congress on negotiating and implementing a final deal; augmenting the credibility of both the U.S. and Israeli military options; improving dialogue with regional allies; and interdicting clandestine Iranian arms exports.
These efforts are not herculean. The United States has been perceived as retreating from its commitments in the Middle East before, but each time it has successfully rebuilt its credibility in the region. Furthermore, the United States innately is in a much stronger position than Iran. Unlike Cold War arms control talks with the Soviet Union, here the United States is the sole superpower, capable of conveying the seriousness of its intentions and redlines with unmatchable military and economic power, not to mention the formidable resources of its diplomatic and regional allies. Iran, possessing only a fledgling nuclear program, faces acute political and economic vulnerabilities at home and significant strategic challenges on its borders. Nevertheless, it is Tehran, not Washington, that has shown a willingness not just to talk, but also to compete. The United States must now demonstrate a greater will to do both as well.