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William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering

Ending the game of chicken

PRESIDENT OBAMA said last weekend “that an opportunity remains for diplomacy — backed by pressure — to succeed’’ with Iran. Meanwhile, after a year of unsuccessful efforts, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have accepted Iran’s invitation for renewed talks. A small diplomatic success now — with each side getting something important — could end the dangerous game of “chicken’’ between the United States, with its capacity to pressure, and Iran, with its capacity to endure.

The UN Security Council and the United States are betting that Iran cannot endure and that sanctions will eventually bring the regime to submission. We should remember that “the endurance of the enemy’’ was the biggest surprise of the Vietnam War to McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser under President Johnson. He also said he had been wrong to believe so strongly in the efficacy of coercion.


Iran, while convinced it will endure sanctions, isolation, and even bombing, has been giving subtle signals that it wants to change course. The first is the invitation to restart talks. Will the administration recognize these signs, act on them adroitly, and bring in the international community? An expanded multilateral approach could drain some of the venom from the toxic US-Iran relationship.

In the upcoming talks, the P5+1 should focus on two trust-building agreements: First, it should seek an agreement for Iran to cease enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is closer to weapons grade. In exchange the P5+1 would supply the needed 20 percent enriched fuel to Tehran’s medical isotope reactor, making it unnecessary for Iran to continue enriching to that level. The objective would be for Iran to commit permanently to a cap on its enrichment at the 5 percent level, which is far below weapons grade. To achieve this cap, the P5+1 should hold off on the implementation of sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and European oil purchases from Iran. With such an agreement, Iran would also get for the first time international approval of its enrichment program - but a program limited and verified at a low level. Each side gets something important.


Second, the P5+1 should propose a separate forum in which interested nations can discuss directly with Iran the broader issues in the region, separate from nuclear matters. Such a venue would open a more fertile path to begin cooperation in areas of mutual importance - such as Afghanistan, Iraq, security in the Gulf, Syria, and drugs - while increasing trust reserves that can be tapped in nuclear discussions. The UN Secretary General could appoint a special emissary - perhaps a respected former head of state - to be a new voice to cut through the fog of ignorance and fear.

Keeping UN members and the P5+1 involved delinks US credibility from Iran’s endurance. It builds on a decade of successful American diplomacy in creating global pressure. It also avoids leaving the United States isolated should forceful action against Iran be necessary.

While the UN Security Council has been pressuring the Iranian leadership, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have maintained critical access to Iran’s nuclear program. This yin and yang role has been partially successful - staying engaged while pressing Iran to conform to its obligations. Now the United States should refresh the UN role to enable constructive discussions with Iran.


The prospects for a unified, peaceful path forward would be advanced by expanding the UN role. On the other hand, US or Israeli military action without UN Security Council approval would alienate many nations that have stood with the United States. It would roll back the progress made reinvigorating alliances after the unilateral American decision to launch the calamitous Iraq war. The Iranian leaders might welcome a peaceful UN emissary since they recall the positive role that the United Nations played in ending the Iran-Iraq war.

It is a grave and uncertain time. Patient, committed diplomacy is the only way to realize the long term and durable objectives of an Iran without nuclear weapons and a region without war. Obama and the Iranian leadership seem ready, cautiously, to move. This opportunity should not be squandered.

William H. Luers served as US ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela, and was president of the United Nations Association from 1999 to 2009. Thomas R. Pickering, an under secretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration, served as US ambassador to Russia, Israel, Jordan, and the United Nations.