Can the strategy the United States successfully pursued towards the Soviet Union also work towards Iran?
- Détente and deterrence are no gift to Iran. They are a sustained challenge to engage in constructive dialogue and, over time, find solutions.
- After almost three decades of mistrust, stalemate and unchecked Iranian nuclear effort, this is the only strategy that may still have an impact on the policies of the Islamic Republic.
- For the United States, not for the leadership in Tehran, the risks of engaging in such a policy are modest.
- It should have been clear from the outset that the Iranians would not move according to the U.S. clock.
Lest we forget, there were endless worries about the saber-rattling bear. But in the end, after a lot of nervousness, grit, determination and, yes, patience, the twin strategy of détente and deterrence worked with regard to the Soviet Union.
In contrast, the Western strategy towards Iran, a policy predominantly shaped by the United States, has never displayed a long-term view of how to shape the relationship.
There are even those now who argue that, given the rapidly declining internal legitimacy of Iran's oppressive regime, there is no need to have a strategy at all since the present leadership will soon be overthrown.
That, however, is pure strategic escapism. Despite the difficulties faced by the regime, it is wishful thinking to expect its near-term collapse. We need to address Iran as it is, not as we would like it to be. And that very much includes the recognition that the strategy employed so far has failed dismally to serve Western interests.
When Tehran did act responsibly and put forward a comprehensive deal back in early 2003, the proposal was rejected out-of-hand by the Bush Administration.
Shortly afterwards, in the hope of some reciprocity to be offered from the U.S. side and at the urging of EU governments, Iran temporarily halted nuclear enrichment — only to discover that Washington preferred threats and sanctions to direct talks.
Negotiations, so the West and at its prompting the UN Security Council insisted, would not be entered into unless Iran were first to stop enrichment unilaterally, at least temporarily.
In light of this experience, it is hardly surprising that the leadership in Tehran intensified the country's nuclear effort, moving closer all the time to acquiring the materials needed for a nuclear device.
As Winston Churchill once quipped: "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." It was the cool-headed recognition that the Iran strategy he inherited had failed that led President Obama to try a different tack. Instead of threatening Tehran, he offered to engage in serious talks, on the basis of mutual respect.
But he clearly underestimated the task. In the naive expectation that the leaders in Tehran would be moved to serious concessions merely by the United States' offer to talk, Obama hoped for quick results. Yet, it should have been clear from the outset that the Iranians would not move according to the U.S. clock.
Instead of working to gain support for a sustainable policy of détente and deterrence towards Iran in his own country, the president has allowed his opponents to dominate the U.S. public debate.
Instead of committing himself for the long haul, he promised to reassess his policy by the end of 2009, barely ten months after proclaiming it.
Instead of trying to gain credibility in Iran for his new approach of mutual respect, he is now seeking new and supposedly tougher sanctions to force concessions from Tehran.
The irony of it all is that this not only apes the failed approach of his predecessor, it also seems to play into the hands of Iranian hardliners.
As the International Crisis Group argued in a report on the prospects of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement published just before Iran's June 2009 presidential elections, normalization with the United States would entail serious political costs for the regime. According to the report, "The greater tensions are with Washington, the easier it is for the regime to rally supporters, suppress dissent and invoke national unity against a common enemy.”
The leadership's experience of seeing its authority and legitimacy erode following the disputed elections has further increased its reluctance to enter into closer engagement with the West. They fear that, far from rebuilding their own legitimacy, a Western détente offensive would undermine it further.
If all that is left of Obama's initiative now is a return to the Bush approach, that is just fine with the hardliners in Tehran — as it is, significantly, with the hardliners in Jerusalem and in Washington.
General James Jones, the U.S. President's National Security Advisor, warned in December that the door to diplomatic discussions with the Iranians remains open — "but it's not going to stay open much longer."
The former Marine Corps Commander and his boss in the Oval Office seem to have forgotten the lessons of the Cold War. Just imagine if any responsible political leader then had declared that the time for talking was up — the Cold War might still be with us today.
Sadly, they also seem to have forgotten another, older lesson of statecraft — namely that it never pays to end one policy if one has no sensible alternative available.
Sanctions, despite all the lip service paid to them in a mantra-like fashion, are no alternative, simply because they will not work. The Iranian regime is, if anything, sanction-hardened, having been exposed to restrictions in its economic access to the West for decades.
On this point, both the American neo-con hardliner John Bolton and the Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi are in complete agreement: New sanctions would harm the people of Iran, perhaps even the Revolutionary Guards, which some now wish to target specifically. However, they will not make the leadership budge one iota.
Instead of now dumping his own initiative because it did not produce results within a few months, or reverting to the bad recipes of yesterday, President Obama needs to get serious.
His task is to formulate a long-term policy towards Iran. He should renew, not terminate, his readiness for direct U.S.-Iranian talks on the basis of mutual respect.
The new approach should cover the whole range of the bilateral relationship, including human rights and trade relations — that is, reach well beyond the nuclear issue. At the same time, Mr. Obama should state clearly that any threat, nuclear or otherwise, by Iran against U.S. allies will be answered with overwhelming force.
Détente and deterrence are no gift to Iran. They are a sustained challenge to engage in constructive dialogue and, over time, find solutions.
After almost three decades of mistrust, stalemate and unchecked Iranian nuclear effort, this is the only strategy that may still have an impact on the policies of the Islamic Republic, including its nuclear ambitions.
For the United States, not for the leadership in Tehran, the risks of engaging in such a policy are modest.