Negotiations between Iran and the West have not led to a deal, but engagement is still the most promising way to end the nuclear impasse.
In April Iran and the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) restarted negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program after a fifteen-month hiatus. Since the talks have restarted the two sides have held a number of meetings at the political level, as well as expert talks on technical issues. Nonetheless, thus far these talks have failed to produce a breakthrough, and prior hope for a quick resolution has dissipated.
The lack of substantive progress has led some pundits and policymakers to call the negotiations a failure and urge the Obama administration to abandon them altogether. Instead, these critics advocate more aggressive actions to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, which range from enacting harsher sanctions to conducting military strikes against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
The impulse to walk away from the talks is understandable. Diplomacy takes time and years of negotiations can sometimes produce only incremental progress. This process is painstakingly slow and inherently frustrating. The results of using armed force, on the other hand, are apparent much more quickly. As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko, puts it, “[Both politicians and ordinary people] want to ‘do something.’ And nothing ‘does something’ like military force.”
But walking away from the talks now would be a mistake. Engagement may not show immediate results, but negotiating with Iran is the only way to achieve a lasting solution to the nuclear dilemma.
In the case of the U.S. and Iran, negotiations are complicated by a long history of miscommunication and mistrust. As I wrote in a recent report from the American Security Project, the U.S. and Iran have had very few high-level discussions on the nuclear program in the ten years since the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program was first revealed.
Of course, the history of non-communication predates the 2002 revelation. The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Iran in the wake of the 1979 Hostage Crisis. Since then, official communications between the two states have almost always been transmitted through third parties.
This is at odds with how the United States has dealt with its adversaries in the past. It also increases the risk of war by miscalculation. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen pointed out, “Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other. If something happens, it's virtually assured that we won't get it right, that there will be miscalculation."
With both sides bolstering their military capabilities in the region, the possibility of events escalating out of control rises considerably. Indeed, this has been demonstrated numerous times throughout the U.S.-Iranian rivalry. For example, with both sides on edge at the end of the Tanker War in 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft that it mistakenly identified as an F-14 fighter jet. All 290 passengers on board perished.
More recently, last month a U.S. Navy vessel in the Gulf fired on a small Indian fishing boat, killing one and wounding three others. It was only hours later that Washington learned that the fishermen were Indian. Had they been Iranian, the story may have played out very differently. With tensions at a fever pitch, an incident like this could easily be the catalyst that sets the U.S. and Iran on a path to the conflict neither side seeks.
Overcoming the mistrust that has built up over decades will take time. The U.S. and Iran have only just begun to talk after years of silence. Previous rapprochements like the Sino-U.S. one under Richard Nixon and Mao were years in the making. Military action may be more satisfying in the short-term, but only engagement promises a long-term solution to the nuclear impasse. Understanding this, the U.S. must resist the impulse to end the talks prematurely and instead redouble its efforts to engage Iran.
Mary Kaszynski is a nuclear policy analyst at the American Security Project, a non-partisan research organization focusing on national security issues. Her most recent report, Talking with Tehran: an Overview of U.S.-Iran Nuclear Negotiations, is available here.
Photo Credit: Office of the President: Iran