For the first time since the May 2010 "Tehran Declaration," Iran has offered a proposal that could break the deadlock over its nuclear program. While there are many unanswered questions about the contours of the proposal and about Iran's motivations for offering it, there is only one way to answer those questions: renewed diplomacy.
According to Iran's atomic energy chief, Iran is proposing that the IAEA would be granted "full supervision" of Iran's nuclear program for five years in exchange for the removal of sanctions. This proposal may be the first glimmer of opportunity towards a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. It could present a rare chance for the U.S. and Iran to get negotiations on track after the false start of October 2009 and the diplomatic purgatory that set in with the implementation new UN and U.S. sanctions.
But while the details of any such proposal have yet to be laid out and would obviously have to be settled at the negotiating table, some -- notably the Washington Post in a September 6th editorial -- have already dismissed the proposal it out of hand. In the past, the limited process of diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran has been undermined by each side dismissing the other's proposals out of hand; and each time, the conflict has become more dangerous and more entrenched.
While sanctions and sabotage efforts have reportedly slowed Iran's nuclear progress, and as recent reports show that U.S. diplomatic efforts have convinced China to "put the brakes on oil and gas investments in Iran," the Iranian nuclear program is advancing, albeit at a slower pace. It is widely acknowledged that sanctions have not changed Iran's strategic calculus regarding its nuclear program.
The fact is, sanctions were never supposed to do that by themselves. Even those who supported the sanctions touted them as a means to bring Iran back to the table for a deal. But now that Iran has signaled a potential willingness to come to the table, we have to ask ourselves whether we value the idea of sanctions more than a potential diplomatic solution.
The idea that sanctions would be lifted in exchange for full supervision is a test for those who said the goal of sanctions was to serve as leverage. By definition, a lever must be able to move. Our sanctions regime, we may come to find out, is a lever that is stuck in place -- a monument to "toughness" that places form over function.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Only diplomatic efforts can achieve a solution in which Iran does not achieve nuclear weapons capability and the U.S. is not drawn into war. But does the political courage exist in Tehran and Washington to pursue serious diplomacy and realistic solutions to the nuclear impasse?
For the Bush Administration, "full supervision" of Iran's nuclear program would not have been enough, even as experts argued it was the most effective way to ensure Iran could not develop a nuclear weapon. The sticking point for Bush was a demand that Iran not have any nuclear enrichment on its soil at all, no matter how constrained or transparent. This intractable standard left little room for a solution to the nuclear dispute, offering only a pathway to eventual war or acceptance of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.
Obama Administration officials have, in the past, hinted at acceptance of a different approach to avoid such undesirable outcomes.
Hillary Clinton, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this year, stated that the U.S. and international community could accept Iran's right to enrichment if Tehran lives up to the obligations that come with any such right -- i.e. provide full transparency to the IAEA.
But as the 2012 election season begins to get underway, the political will may, once again, not be there. Unfortunately, the political metric for Iran continues to favor tough talk and pressure for the sake of pressure over real solutions. It may be more attractive for politicians to appear "tough" on Iran instead of pursuing realistic solutions to prevent a day in the future when we would have to choose between living with an Iran that has a nuclear breakout capability or engaging in a disastrous war. The Washington Post seems to endorse this standard and the bad options that come with it.