WASHINGTON — Few people will be moved or impressed by the now predictable denunciations and protests that greeted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week when he arrived in New York. The political campaigns tried to score points for their candidates and administration officials talked tough. Jewish community groups organized their due-diligence demonstrations.
All the while, Ahmadinejad revels in his role of “defiant bad guy,” further irritating and outraging the world.
Everyone is playing his and her expected roles, obediently repeating their lines and emoting on cue, reducing a key foreign policy question of our time — nuclear proliferation in the Middle East — to second-rate political theater.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a serious matter, so why is the response so reckless? How is it that nearly a year after the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran — a report that underscored the fact that there has long been a potential opening to engage directly and constructively with Iran — U.S. policy has not evolved?
An Iran armed with nuclear weapons represents a dangerous and alarming scenario, one that neither the United States nor Israel can afford to ignore, and one that the United States and the international community should be exerting all efforts to avoid. How the United States deals with Iran has an especially important impact on Israel. A nuclear-armed Iran poses a potential existential threat to Israel, and an unchecked rogue Iran will only continue to use support for terrorist groups to destabilize the region and threaten Israel.
In the absence of an effective international strategy to deal with Iran, domestic pressure for Israel to take matters into its own hands will continue to grow.
Unfortunately, instead of an orchestrated international effort to negotiate a solution, we have an American-led strategy based on the notion that the world can (and should) cajole, threaten and sanction Iran into submission. This policy hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program.
Worse yet, it may be having the opposite effect: Just as American politicians routinely bolster their patriotic credentials by talking tough about Iran, Iranian hard-liners — including Ahmadinejad — burnish their own nationalist credentials with pledges to stand up to American bullying. Indeed, such nationalist rhetoric is today one of the only planks Iranian hard-liners have left to run on, given the domestic economic and social challenges facing their country.
It should surprise no one that pushed into a corner, many Iranians — including those who don’t support Ahmadinejad — have come to view the nuclear program as a symbol of national honor and pride.
Ahmadinejad is a populist rabble-rouser whose anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric is repugnant. His country’s support for terrorist groups throughout the region is abhorrent. Nobody is suggesting America should embrace the guy.
But just as clearly, demonizing Ahmadinejad while constantly reminding him that “all options are on the table” does not constitute the basis for a responsible or effective Iran policy. Addressing the challenge of Iran requires a smart strategy — combining carrots and sticks, diplomacy and sanctions — and strong U.S. participation and leadership. Sanctions are indeed a potentially powerful tool for putting pressure on Iran, but they simply will not suffice as a replacement for diplomacy in resolving our differences. And clearly the option for military action is always available, but that option and even its threat must be reserved as the option of truly last resort.
Finally, while it is true that the United States has offered to engage Iran in a limited manner, such engagement has been preconditioned on Iran first freezing its nuclear program. This approach, in which as a precondition to negotiations Iran is required to take an action that from its perspective should more appropriately come as the outcome of negotiations, has been unsuccessful because it does not constitute real diplomacy.
Ahmadinejad deserve, and probably welcome, the hostile reception waiting for him in New York. But scorn cannot replace policy. The United States does not have to like Ahmadinejad to engage in real diplomacy with his country, and engaging Iran in order to safeguard vital U.S. national security interests is not appeasement. Rather it is the kind of sensible and responsible foreign policy that is long overdue.
Such a diplomatic effort will not be easy; indeed it will be a long and arduous process. Nor is its success a foregone conclusion. But such an effort is indispensable if the United States is serious about dealing with the threat posed by Iran.
(Debra DeLee is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.)