A funny thing happened on the way to possible war with Iran. After threatening Tehran for months and darkly warning that “all options are on the table,” the United States in June suddenly switched gears and joined with other major countries in offering to negotiate. This was a hopeful development that for the moment reduced the risk of military attack against Iran.
The debate within the United States over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program is by no means settled, however. Neoconservatives are pushing for a more confrontational approach, while pragmatists are urging patience and direct U.S. engagement. The outcome of this debate will have enormous implications for the prospects of peace, not only in Iran but more broadly in the region.
The proposals offered to Iran by a coalition of European countries, the United States, Russia, and China tend to confirm what many critics in the U.S. have been saying about the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Threatening sanctions and the use of force against Iran is counterproductive and will only harden the Iranian position. Incentives will be more successful than sanctions in gaining Tehran’s cooperation. Diplomatic engagement is the most realistic strategy for preventing the further spread of weapons and war in the region.
THE PROPOSALS PRESENTED this spring to Iran are a step in the right direction, but they do not go far enough toward addressing the roots of the conflict. The incentives package reportedly allows Iran to purchase light-water nuclear reactors, which are less proliferation-prone than its current reactors. It includes a promise of Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization and a pledge to lift restrictions on the Iranian purchase of modern civil aircraft. The package also includes an implicit commitment from the United States to talk with Iran, although only indirectly as part of a multilateral process.