The Washington Post's editors are reinforcing the Iranian government's narrative with respect to Tehran's nuclear program. Last November, the editors criticized Defense Secretary Gates for "talking down military action [against Iran]." This week, they assert that a "better course [than pursuing negotiations] is to bet on a renewed popular uprising in Iran." These policy prescriptions play into Tehran's version of the dispute between the international community and the Islamic Republic – i.e., the United States and its allies are intent on forcing regime change; negotiations are a ruse to deny Iran its right as a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program.
The Obama administration has been arguing for a dual-track strategy of sanctions and diplomacy. By raising the costs for Iranian noncompliance with IAEA safeguards through UN sanctions while keeping a negotiating channel open, it hopes to induce Iran to accept sufficient transparency measures to assure the international community that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Negotiating with Iran is exceedingly difficult, burdened as it is by deep distrust between the parties. The December 2001 Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan offers at least one important example of constructive diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The initial acceptance by Iranian negotiators in October 2010 of a confidence-building arrangement to swap Iranian low-enriched uranium for Tehran Research Reactor fuel was an encouraging development, but hopes were soon dashed when the formula received a hostile reception in Tehran, including from leaders of the Green Movement. A resumption of P5+1 discussions with Iran in December 2010 (Geneva), continuing in January 2011 (Istanbul) led nowhere because of Iranian preconditions to meaningful dialogue. Yet the history of U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations during the Cold War contains examples of equally daunting obstacles being overcome in eventually concluding constructive and durable agreements between hostile states. The Washington Post's advice, however – ruling out negotiations and threatening military force – is a good formula for reducing tough odds to zero.
The administration's commitment to negotiations does not prevent criticism of Tehran's miserable human rights record or inhibit efforts to foster the free flow of ideas. Washington's support for the appointment of a Special Reporteur on human rights in Iran by the UN Human Rights Commission and President Obama's use of his Nowruz message to Iranians in March to recognize specific individuals who had been victims of oppression demonstrate the point. But resolving nuclear proliferation concerns does require the United States to keep its eye on the ball. Since few Iran experts believe that regime change in the near term is likely, the Post's narrow prescription looks naïve and self-defeating. The editors are right that simply waiting for Iran's regime to negotiate is too passive, but abandoning all attempts at negotiation is not the proper reaction to such passivity. Maximizing opportunities for engagement – such as lifting bans on encounters with Iranian diplomats – would be advisable; talking up the military option is not. Considering the unpredictability of popular uprisings and the obvious downsides of using military force, continuing pursuit of diplomacy is a no-brainer. Negotiating adequate safeguards with whatever government rules in Tehran is the best bet for surmounting the current crisis as soon as possible.