Engage or confront? It’s the eternal divide in foreign affairs when dealing with a dangerous state on a troublesome course. The question has been asked variously of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Pakistan and now Iran over its nuclear program.
The problem with engagement is this: You must make a serious commitment to a set of negotiations that are bound to take considerable time but offer no advance assurance of success. Also, any concessions you make, once they are made, will be almost impossible to retract in the event of the failure of negotiations.
For example, sanctions. Say a new set of sanctions is imposed on Iran by the U.N. Security Council (or, if that’s impossible because of Russian and Chinese opposition, by the United States and other countries in a coalition of the willing). Say, then, that the United States begins talking to Iran in a process that may look at some point like it has the possibility of bearing fruit. If you reach the point at which you decide to lift sanctions, then the chance of reimposing them is quite low. You had better get the moment right.
What’s true of sanctions may be true of talks altogether: Once you start, if you decide you have to stop because you are getting nothing out of them, at a minimum you will pay a price for walking away. It is easier to persist in a position of not talking than to cease talking once you have started.
The problem with confrontation is that you never really find out whether there are any other possibilities. It seems pretty clear that on its present course, Iran is determined to acquire a nuclear weapon. I like Sen. John McCain’s formulation, namely, that the only thing worse than military action against Iran is an Iran with a nuclear weapon. While it emphasizes that unacceptable means unacceptable, it attends to the desirability of persuading the Iranian government to that fact before recourse to pre-emptive military action against nuclear sites.
To do that, however, you have to talk, if for no other reason than to gauge the response to what amounts to your ultimatum. But, of course, you cannot merely deliver an ultimatum. You also have to be prepared to make concessions to Iran in exchange for a verifiable end to its nuclear program. This, the confrontational approach is loath to contemplate: It’s based on threats alone.
The confrontational approach is also essentially bilateral: It’s about a powerful state making a threat against another state and making good on that threat if necessary. Now, again, the Iranian nuclear problem may come down to just such a calculation. But it is hardly there now. There have been active diplomatic efforts, first from the EU 3 (Britain, France, Germany), and now at the Security Council, as well as in various other international forums.
One could describe these efforts as a failure, if by success we mean persuading Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But that’s naive. What’s going on is a diplomatic process. It has two objectives, not just one. The first, of course, is to persuade Iran; the second is to explore whether the persuasion of Iran is possible.
The confrontational approach dismisses the latter as an irrelevance. The die is already cast, which means that the time for an ultimatum is at hand. Any unwillingness on the part of others to see the matter in those terms is delusional. The assumption here is that the United States has nothing to gain from diplomatic efforts, not only from Iran but also from the recognition of others that diplomacy will not stop an Iranian nuke.
I think there is something to gain. We clarify the choice before us. If it comes down to military action or an Iranian nuclear weapon, no doubt some of our allies will come down on one side of the questions and some on the other. But we will have demonstrated through the process of diplomacy that Iran remains determined to go ahead with its nuclear weapons program and that no reasonable concessions could dissuade it from doing so. If we have to take military action, I’d rather do so on the basis of that showing than on the assertion that such a showing is meaningless.
Is there anything Iran wants more than a nuclear weapon? If so, is what Iran wants instead in any sense reasonable? If what Iran wants is not reasonable, is there anything reasonable that Iran would accept in exchange for a verifiable end to its nuclear program? The answer to those questions may be “no,” “no” and “no.” But we would be better served by demonstrating that the answers are “no” than simply by assuming and asserting they are.
Engagement may not work, but we need to approach it seriously, with the view that, if successful, it may avert a violent confrontation; if unsuccessful, it will have demonstrated that a violent confrontation is the only way to stop the Iranian bomb.