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The U.S. and Iran: It's time to talk

A conversation with the Tehran regime is the best option for dealing with our differences. The possibility of failure shouldn't Obama from making the effort.

September 08, 2009

French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have said it best some years ago when he declared that the only real alternative to "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran" was a concerted diplomatic push by world powers to address that country's nuclear program. President Obama took office on a promise to engage with hostile governments, and soon after, extended a specific offer of direct U.S. talks with Tehran, with a September sell-by date.

Just in time last week, Iran's chief negotiator announced that he has an "updated nuclear proposal" and is ready to accept Obama's invitation. The proposal is expected to be unveiled before the U.N. General Assembly meets later this month, but already critics are warning that Iran will use the talks to stall for time to advance its nuclear ambitions and weaken international resolve for economic sanctions.

Maybe so. But even if that is Tehran's plan, Obama must follow through on the offer. He must pursue talks seriously, with the intention of success and not the assumption of failure.

Iran maintains its right under international law to have a nuclear program for civil purposes. The U.S. and its allies believe that has been used as cover for Iran's continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons -- an outcome opposed even by key powers China and Russia. The options available for addressing this issue are well known to all: negotiations, with political and economic incentives; pressure through economic sanctions; military action or, if all that fails, containment.

Let's start with the obvious: Bombing Iran is a terrible idea. Although strikes on nuclear sites could delay weapons development for a few years, retribution against the U.S. and its allies would be felt across the region for far longer. Even if Israel did the bombing, America would be blamed.

Containment is a last resort, to be used only if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. As believers in nonproliferation, we don't want to see it come to that; a nuclear Iran would further destabilize an already unstable region and prompt other countries to follow suit.

That leaves persuasion or pressure, or some combination of the two, as the Obama administration has proposed by offering engagement and threatening new sanctions if Iran does not respond positively. In the past, U.S. and Iranian desires to negotiate have not coincided, and other American efforts, from unilateral sanctions to unilateral concessions, have failed to clip Iran's ambitions. On the contrary, 15 years ago, Tehran had none of the centrifuges required to make highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, and now it has about 7,000. Theoretically that's enough to produce uranium for two or three bombs.

Some officials in Tehran have said the government is willing to talk about some global and regional issues, but not about its nuclear program. This is worrisome but should not be used as an obstacle to negotiations. Without accepting Iran's preconditions -- or imposing its own, for that matter -- the U.S. and its partners should take the opportunity to sit down and talk. The two sides have to get to the table if they ever hope to put their cards on it.

It would be naive to assume that negotiations are likely to be quick or easy. The likelihood of success is further clouded by the recent political upheaval in Iran, although it's unclear whether that makes Tehran more likely to negotiate in order to reduce its isolation, or less likely to make concessions because it is wounded and weak. All the more reason to start negotiating, if only to learn.

The question that naturally follows is what to do if talks fail. While reluctant to endorse measures that would hurt average Iranians or reunite the populace in an anti-American fury, this page recognizes that tough sanctions would be the obvious next step. We also realize that if China and Russia are ever going to agree to such a thing, it will be only after a serious effort to negotiate has been made.

So now is the time to try, without threatening consequences for failure before the two sides even sit down.

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