Presidential debates on international affairs almost always invoke a lot of tough talk, and Monday’s was no exception as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used the topic of Iran to burnish their macho credentials.
Negotiating directly with Tehran does not sound tough, which may be why both candidates evaded it when the subject came up. However, direct United States-Iran talks must at least be attempted before war becomes the only remaining option to halt Iran’s quest for bomb-grade nuclear material.
The New York Times reported Sunday that Iran and the United States had agreed to direct negotiations. This would mark a bold and potentially perilous move by the Obama administration, which says the report is not true.
Former Bush administration officials say direct negotiations make sense. We agree.
The regional consequences of a war with Iran would be horrific. Iran’s proxies would surge forth to cause mayhem. Oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz would probably shut down, leading to shortages and global economic catastrophe. There is no guarantee that other nuclear powers, such as India, Pakistan, China and Russia, would support the United States. A broader international conflict of world-war proportions isn’t hard to envision.
So, yes, the two absolutely should talk directly. We must move deliberately and strategically. We cannot allow our direct conversations to be misinterpreted by Tehran as a signal that our resolve and that of our allies to inflict unprecedented harsh economic sanctions has diminished. Nor can negotiations become another tool for Iran to keep stalling as it proceeds with bomb-capable enrichment activities.
Direct talks must establish unequivocally that international sanctions will only get worse if Iran doesn’t show immediate and full compliance with all United Nations resolutions and its signed commitment to the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty. Enrichment efforts and nuclear-capable ballistic missile development must cease, as the Security Council requires.
Being clear and direct also ramps down questions about the commitment the United States has to our closest ally in the region, Israel. Despite the attempts of some to make this relationship a political football, the bond that exists between our nation and Israel can never be compromised. Any threat to Israel is essentially an attack on the United States, and direct talks with Iran do not and could never threaten that relationship.
Going forward, it is crucial that the United States establish a clear timetable of compliance, and until Iran complies— sanctions will not ease. Iran must have no doubt that its currency crisis, inflation, worsening shortages and rising domestic
political tensions are only a taste of the pain to come. The talks should establish that Iran’s only hope of avoiding more of the same— and possibly war— is to stop stalling and to start complying.
Direct talks can and should help rebuild trust and defuse the rising tensions. The Bush administration tried direct talks before, in 2007. Yet relations wound up only getting worse, in large part because Iran failed to honor its commitments. This time, the onus must be on Iran to demonstrate transparency, goodwill and a genuine desire to avoid war.