The dictionary defines diplomacy as the “art and practice of conducting negotiations,” but one incisive wag said diplomacy is really “the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ till you can find a rock.” So who has the stones required to stop Iran’s rulers from acquiring the nuclear weapons they need, not for deterrence as their apologists claim, but to escalate their war against Israel, America, and the West?
The United States does, but President Obama is not eager to utilize them. That’s understandable: Americans are war-weary. But if Iran’s rulers do acquire nuclear weapons on Obama’s watch, and if that leads to a 21st century that becomes bloodier than the 20th was, history will not judge him kindly.
It is possible that Israelis will do the job others don’t want to do. Obama, in his AIPAC remarks, at least recognized the legitimacy of their concerns, acknowledging that “no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction.”
Israelis would like nothing better than to resolve this conflict diplomatically. But Iran’s rulers refuse even to talk with the leaders of the tiny Jewish state. Their intransigence is seldom noted, much less criticized, by those most enthusiastic about the possibility of a diplomatic solution.
Between diplomacy and warfare lie economic sanctions. Israeli leaders have long been strongly supportive of the increasingly tough measures produced by the U.S. Congress on a bipartisan basis and signed by Obama. Europeans, too, have imposed stiff sanctions.
But sanctions — and diplomacy and warfare, too, actually — are means, not ends. No one with a lick of sense backs sanctions because they are confident sanctions will work — with “work” defined as causing Iran’s rulers to decide to forgo the most effective weapon ever invented (by infidels, of course) to project power.
So what’s the point? For one, sanctions, and the continuing debate they provoke, serve to remind the “international community” of the threat Iran’s theocrats pose. Second, it’s always useful to weaken one’s enemies, and sanctions — in particular the new sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank and expelling Iran from the SWIFT international electronic banking system — have been enfeebling Iran’s oil-based economy. Finally, should more kinetic measures be used to stop Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, it will be vital for sanctions to be in place — and remain in place — during whatever diplomatic palaver may follow.
Opponents of sanctions and more forceful measures don’t get this. They argue that diplomacy can still succeed — despite decades of failed outreach to Iran’s rulers by both Americans and Europeans. They further argue that sanctions are an impediment to diplomacy. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently that “the United States cannot hope to bargain with a country whose economy it is trying to disrupt and destroy.” The Iranians, she added, “cannot be nudged into a constructive negotiating process by measures that exacerbate their vulnerability.”
She has it exactly backwards, as anyone who has ever been involved in any negotiation should recognize. If we want Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to stop doing what they are doing — e.g., building nuclear weapons, supporting terrorists, threatening their neighbors, oppressing their own people — we have to do more than “nudge” them. We have to offer them something of great value.
What would Maloney have us put on the table other than an end to sanctions and no use of force — or no further use of force? What else does she imagine they would accept in exchange for giving up the chance to possess the weapons they see as key to achieving the goals of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, which include dominance of the Middle East in the short run, and “a world without America” eventually, with the extermination of Israeli men, women, and children somewhere along the way?
When conducted between reasonable, peace-loving people, the “art and practice of conducting negotiations” can lead to compromise and the resolution of conflicts. But when dealing with despots, people who respect only power and see even mercy as weakness, there are no talking cures. Iran’s rulers see the U.S. as materialistic, decadent, weak-willed, and just plain tired of carrying the burdens of leadership. They are convinced Obama will accept what he has called “unacceptable,” that, in the end, he will allow the world’s worst dictators — and the leading sponsors of terrorism — to arm themselves with the world’s worst weapons.
A new round of diplomacy is scheduled to begin next month in Geneva. For there to be any small chance of success, Iran’s rulers will need to feel pressured and vulnerable — they will need to take seriously the possibility that Americans and Israelis have rocks and are prepared to use them.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.