Iran Opening: Keep It Simple

Smart goals and smart negotiations will make the question of Rouhani's true intentions irrelevant.

Will someone explain why they consider the policy issues raised by Iran’s recent move much of an issue, a subject that needs much deliberating? Unlike Syria, where it is difficult to know with whom to side, and Egypt—where no one seems to have any good suggestions-- the situation with Iran seems abundantly clear.

No one in his right mind can suggest that the US should reject out of hand the offer by the newly elected president of Iran to show that his country’s nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, that Iran has no intentions nor plans nor facilities for making nukes, and that all he wants in turn is for the sanctions on his country to be lifted. Of course there is no other possible response than: “great, we love it, let’s go”.

Obviously, there is room for a legitimate concern that Iran will seek drawn-out negotiations in order to buy time to advance its military nuclear program, as the Saudis, the Israelis and several observers from here and there fear. However, whether President Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, the angel of peace or a smiling mullah—he already responded to this concern very effectively. He told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that Iran wants to proceed in short order, in matter of months. "The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that’s short–and wrap it up. That is a decision of my government, that short is necessary to settle the nuclear file. The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it’s 3 months that would be Iran’s choice, if it’s 6 months that’s still good. It’s a question of months not years."

So far so good. All we need to say, all we can say is: “We could not agree more; see you soonest.”

The next step seems also plain.

If Iran has nothing to hide, there is no reason it would refuse scores of inspections to visit all the sites we list, say in the next weeks, and interview scientists and engineers who work there. We can talk later about limiting the enrichment of uranium and trading the deactivation of some centrifuges for fresh fuel provided by an international “bank”. No sanctions will be lifted until such sweeping inspections are conducted. (And even then, as Kenneth Pollack pointed out, these are best suspended rather than lifted, because if the sanctions are merely suspended they can be reinstated without a new UN Security Council resolution). In other words, it should not be difficult to reveal whether Iran’s recent changes are real—or are mere rhetoric.

The trap we must avoid is not merely the stretching-out game, but lifting a few sanctions in exchange for a few inspections—the direction the Obama administration is moving. The reason is that lifting some sanctions will do a great deal to help Iran recover, while a few inspections may reveal nothing. They claim they have nothing to hide; there is thus every reason to go wholesale, full measure.

Some believe that we should make this or that concession to help Rouhani in his struggle with the supreme leader. However, anybody who watched a B movie or TV series has seen the good cop, bad cop routine before. We should stand for what makes sense—and not fool ourselves that we can play some Iranian leaders against the others.

Equally clear is that a major problem is our intrepid president. He is very set on focusing on nation building at home and not becoming involved in another war in the Middle East, as his treatment of Syria confirmed. The public and Congress may not feel as reluctant to come to blows with Iran—if it turns out that those who distrust Iran will be proven to have been prescient—but support for armed intervention in Iran is far from assured. Above all, the president prides himself on his unbounded belief in diplomacy. Little would please him more than crowning his meager legacy with having resolved the Iran situation through negotiations.

Hence if Iran is out to gain some months to be ready for a nuclear breakout—it will seek to play into Obama’s fantasy. In this case Iran is likely to assume that making peace-loving statements and minor concessions, will suffice to keep Obama at the table for many months to come. Obviously if Iran succeeds and then one day announces (or our intelligence community finds out) that it has assembled a bomb or two, the United States (at least this administration) will be considered a sucker and an unreliable power by allies and adversaries alike.

Thus the main issue may not be Iran, but our leadership. Will it let Iran play us, or will it help resolve the questions surrounding Iran’s overtures by stressing that if they mean business, there is no reason for them to dawdle. And Obama shouldn’t settle for a few inspections in exchange for lifting a few sanctions, but should aim for a grand bargain: sweeping inspections followed by suspension of major sanctions.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.