Preliminary talks in Istanbul last month were generally received with cautious optimism and claims of modest progress. Whether such optimism was warranted, however, is questionable at best. Few concrete steps were realized and a timetable for inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities was not achieved.
As the great powers emerge from the second round of talks in Baghdad, Western officials will again downplay prospects for an immediate breakthrough. Negotiation will be deemed a long process. Optimistic claims of progress resulting from trivial concessions will be framed as political victories. And, not surprisingly, Iranian officials will herald the talks as fruitful and call for continued cooperation.
The result: the stage will be set for more broken promises and Iranian influence will grow in a region readying itself for the inevitable power vacuum created by a smaller U.S. footprint. This is a troubling legacy for a U.S. president faced with the prospect of a single term and heading into an election year.
Regrettably, the ongoing direct talks, viewed by some as negotiations, haven't been treated as such. The Obama administration's unwillingness to forcefully leverage hard and soft power to address the Iran problem underscores a combination of naivete, unwillingness to face the threat posed by Tehran, and a troubling sense that international conflict makes for bad electoral politics. As the talks drag on, Iran's mullahs buy precious time to pursue their ultimate goal of a nuclear arsenal and the world is held hostage to the posturing of a rogue regime with a long history of promoting instability and fueling proxy violence.
Before any future talks with Iran are scheduled, administration officials would be wise to take several immediate steps to ensure that U.S. security interests are protected:
1) The United States should signal Iran that if negotiations fail to achieve substantive ends, the United States or other world powers may choose to act with force to curtail Tehran's nuclear plans. As a key ally, Israel should be readied for the likelihood of a tactical strike to diminish Iran's growing nuclear program.
To date, U.S. officials have provided no public indications to Israel that such activities are imminent or assurances that preemptive activity by Israel would be met with support -- material, political or otherwise. Enhanced covert action to frustrate and set back Iran's efforts should also be put squarely on the table and the necessity of such activity should be contextualized as a potential necessity with significant consequences for U.S.-Iran relations.
2) The prominent and well-organized Iranian dissident organization in exile, People's Mujahedin of Iran, should be formally removed from the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Terrorist Organization list and recast as a political alternative to the theocratic rule in Tehran. The existing placement on the list curtails the group's ability to raise funds, maintain a lobby and receive virtually any type of assistance or support. The label also broadcasts an illegitimacy that serves as a scarlet letter and undermines the social mobilization necessary for resistance. Correcting the list to reflect existing realities in the Middle East makes clear that instability and violence promoted by the Iranian government will be checked with support for a grassroots movement that can challenge its authority.
3) U.S. officials should demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency be given unfettered access to Iran's so-called "peaceful" nuclear program and that Tehran furnish evidence of its halting of uranium to weapons-grade levels. A timetable for removal of all existing uranium enriched to 20 percent purity should also be formalized.
4) U.S. officials should ramp up political and economic sanctions and build support among world powers to do the same. Over the past year, economic sanctions have taken a toll inside Iran and Iranians are increasingly holding their government accountable. A European oil embargo that will take effect this summer is a necessary means of further ripening the negotiating environment, exploiting Iran's ongoing troubles and ensuring future compliance with negotiated concessions.
Iran's well-earned reputation for being masters of diplomatic sleight of hand, as well as their long history of accepting U.S. olive branches while working against U.S. interests, should be taken into consideration by U.S. negotiators. Tehran's sophisticated use of threat and accommodation to ensure its own political interests must be seen for what it is. The recognition that, as some credible voices suggest, no package of concessions or incentives will dissuade Iran from its current course must also be considered.
The window for diplomatic action is closing and current talks in Istanbul and Baghdad have left unresolved key issues. Iranian sincerity in continued discussions must be checked with calls for concrete action. The time has come for the Obama administration to make clear that confidence-building measures and dialogue as a tactic for the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be challenged through other methods of conflict management that don't involve discussion.
The primary fountainhead of terror in the modern world cannot be allowed to hold the world hostage by raising hopes and dashing expectations only to buy time to engage in the illicit pursuit of a nuclear stockpile. If negotiations are to be used to buy time and build trust for the pursuit of weapons to destabilize the region, the world needs to acknowledge this and act accordingly.
(Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the director of the Negotiation and Conflict Management Program in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. The opinions expressed are entirely his own.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)