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Column: Obama Has Done Everything Right on Iran — Except Succeed

There is no better example of an Obama administration initiative that has succeeded on its own terms, and yet failed as policy, than Iran. By engaging the regime in Tehran, and being rebuffed, the White House has been able to enlist China, Russia and the European Union in imposing tough sanctions on Iran. By steadily ratcheting up those sanctions, the administration has been able to gradually squeeze the Iranian economy. By insisting that “containment” is not an option, Obama has convinced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he need not launch an attack on Iran — at least not any time soon.

Obama has done everything right, and yet his Iran policy is failing. There is no evidence that the sanctions will bring Iran to its knees and force the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to accept the humiliation of abandoning his nuclear program. But neither is there any sign of new thinking in the White House. “I don’t see how what didn’t work last year is going to work this year,” says Vali Nasr, who served in the Obama State Department before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He might not get much of an argument from White House officials, who, The New York Times recently noted, “seem content with stalemate.”

The United States is not negotiating directly with Iran but rather doing so through the P5 plus 1, which consists of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany. The P5 plus 1’s current position is that Iran must stop enriching nuclear fuel to 20 percent purity — a point from which Iran could quickly move to weapons-grade material — transfer its existing stock of such fuel to a third country, and shut down one of its two enrichment facilities, known as Fordow. In exchange, the parties will help Iran produce such fuel for medical purposes, which the regime claims is its actual goal. Iran has refused, saying it will not shut down Fordow.

But the current state of play masks the larger issue, which is that the ayatollah and those around him believe the United States wants to make Iran cry uncle — which happens to be true. The next round of P5 plus 1 negotiations, now scheduled for Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan, are almost certainly not going to go anywhere unless the United States signals that it is prepared to make what the Iranians view as meaningful and equivalent moves in exchange for Iranian concessions. Arms-control experts say that both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Catherine Ashton, head of foreign affairs for the European Union, favor offering Iran a reduction in sanctions; but there’s a limit to what they can do without the United States.

Of course, such flexibility would be pointless if Iran is simply hell-bent on gaining the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The signals, as always with Iran, are cryptic. Iranian authorities have told nuclear inspectors that they plan to install a new generation of centrifuges in order to accelerate enrichment. And yet Iran also chose to convert some of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for medical use rather than approach the amount needed for a bomb, leading Israeli authorities to predict that Iran wouldn’t be able to build a bomb before 2015 or 2016. Last week, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, publicly criticized officials who have treated the negotiations dismissively. Presumably, he was thinking of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has compared Iran’s nuclear program to a train without brakes.

Iran is now at the outset of what promises to be a raucous presidential election, and may be no more capable of serious negotiations between now and June than the United States was in 2012. But what is clear is that the sanctions have moderated Iranian behavior and rhetoric. At the same time, as the Times also noted, the economic pressure is not nearly great enough to compel concessions that the regime would view as a blow to national pride. In short, Iran might — might — be more willing to accept a face-saving compromise than they were a year or two ago, but will need serious inducements to do so.

What would that entail? Virtually all the proposals that have come from outside experts suggest that the P5 plus 1 begin with modest confidence-building measures, especially in the period before the election. A recent report by the Arms Control Association enumerates several of them. Western diplomats, for example, could take up Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, on his proposal to limit the “extent” of enrichment — i.e., well below 20 percent — in exchange for fuel rods for the research reaction and a recognition of Iran’s “right to enrich,” a notional concept the United States already supports under specified conditions. Or Iran could suspend 20-percent enrichment in exchange for a suspension of new sanctions.

Beyond that, the outlines of what in Middle East peacemaking is known as “final status” are clear enough: Iran agrees to verifiable inspections to ensure that it does not enrich uranium beyond 3.5 percent and does not pursue a nuclear weapons program, while the West accepts Iran’s “right to enrich” and dismantles sanctions. Of course, the outlines of a Middle East peace deal are clear enough, too. But in both cases, neither side trusts the other, and each demands that the other go first. Instead, nobody goes anywhere.

U.S. officials have very good reason to be wary of Iran’s bona fides. In 2009, they reached a deal with Iranian negotiators to send the stockpile of highly enriched uranium out of the country — only to see the ayatollah repudiate it. Anyone who watched Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing knows that it is an article of faith in Congress that Iran is a faithless, illegitimate terrorist state that will be deterred from building a bomb only by the threat of massive attack. Had Hagel been foolish enough to suggest that the United States offer to reduce sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions, the White House would have had to find a new candidate for defense secretary.

It’s Congress that arguably holds the high cards, though the White House put them in its hands. The most potent sanctions are legislated, and have been written in such a way that they will be very hard to unwind. Obama can waive them for up to six months. But the ayatollah is not about to make irreversible decisions in exchange for six months of relief.

The White House is thus stuck between Tehran and Capitol Hill. And it can’t live long with the current stalemate. After all, Obama has said that “containment” is not an option. He is hoping that the combination of economic pain and fear of military action will bring Tehran to its senses. If it doesn’t, the president has said that he is prepared to use force. Perhaps he feels that just as spurned engagement served as the predicate for tough sanctions, so would failed negotiations lay the predicate for a broadly supported strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran left us no choice, he might say, as the bombers fly.

That would constitute a diplomatic triumph ... if a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is a good idea. If in fact it’s a dreadful prospect — worse, perhaps, even than containment — then it would constitute a failure that would obliterate the record of adroit diplomacy of the last four years. Obama understands very well — even if many members of Congress do not — that even our worst adversaries have interests of their own, that those interests feel as legitimate to them as ours do to us, and that we at least have a chance of settling disputes with them if we can find the place where our interests overlap. The time has come for him to apply that wisdom to Iran.

James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. He writes Terms of Engagement for Foreign Policy.