First — after recognizing Iran’s right to enrichment for civil nuclear power generation, which Iran’s opposition supports given the need for new energy sources — we must understand why Iran might go further and seek nuclear deterrence. Its neighbors — Israel, Pakistan and India — have nuclear weapons, but they have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran signed but feels insecure because regional powers are nuclear-armed and unmonitored by it.
If America wants to undermine states’ pursuit of weapons, it must forge a formidable nonproliferation pact that includes all players, excludes nobody and ensures fair enforcement. Until this happens, Iran and Israel will feel insecure and react defensively to overtures, no matter how well-intentioned.
Second, we must pursue every avenue before resorting to a war that will turn populations against us, send unstable regions into unimaginable chaos and do little to undermine nuclear knowledge and capacity. That requires a Nixon- or Kennedy-like maneuver, deploying the most experienced ambassadorial team capable of the most delicate communication. Obama recognizes that this is not a game and has reprimanded Congress and candidates for seeing it as such, but he has yet to take it seriously. The White House’s highest leadership should meet Iran’s leaders and take the necessary time to hash out a deal. Then Washington has a measure by which to hold Iran accountable.
Think carefully about whether a war is worth it, especially given still-violent Iraq and Afghanistan 10 years on. We cannot afford to fail at diplomacy. America’s debt-ridden economy cannot afford it and an unstable Middle East cannot either, as it will undoubtedly suffer serious loss of life from a regionwide conflagration. Istanbul was a start, but in Baghdad we must do better.
Michael Shank, a former Democratic Hill staffer, is U.S. vice president of the Institute for Economics and Peace.