It is something of a truism that in Washington, bad ideas never truly go away. Instead, they keep cropping up at the most inopportune moments. So it is with American policy toward Iran. Stymied in recent months by the resilience of Iran's increasingly mature nuclear effort and complicated by the unfolding turmoil of the "Arab Spring," policymakers inside the Beltway are once again flirting with the idea that some sort of diplomatic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic is in fact possible.
The latest proponent of a return to "engagement" is none other than Fareed Zakaria, CNN's resident foreign policy guru and editor at large of Time magazine. In a recent column in the Washington Post, Zakaria urged the Obama White House to "go back to 2008," when unconditional engagement with Iran seemed like a good idea. "Obama should return to his original approach and test the Iranians to see if there is any room for dialogue and agreement," Zakaria suggests.
A nice sentiment, to be sure. But even if the United States wanted to, why would Iran—which spurned outreach from Washington when it was originally attempted in the early days of the Obama administration—jump at the opportunity now? After all, America is in a far weaker regional position today than it was three years ago. With withdrawal from Iraq now literally around the corner, and a similar pullout from Afghanistan also in the offing in the coming year, Iran has become convinced that America is eyeing the exits in the Middle East. As a result, it would be difficult to envision what tangible benefits Tehran could gain from negotiating with a departing Washington that it couldn't by simply waiting it out.
After all, it's not as if Iran faces an imminent threat as a result of its intransigence. While Administration officials continue to intone that all options remain "on the table" in dealing with Iran, it has become abundantly clear to Tehran (and everyone else) that a U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear program isn't in the offing. Economic pressure is a different story, but although the comprehensive energy sanctions levied against Iran last year have begin to bite, they remain under-utilized and embryonic in nature. (Only a handful of foreign firms have been sanctioned to date, and the White House has shied away from applying additional ones on countries such as China which continue to aid and abet Iran's nuclear drive.) Such measures, moreover, are less and less likely to appear over time, as our engagement in the region declines and Iran's freedom of action increases. All of which mitigates strongly against a durable negotiating track—or Iran's receptivity to it.
But perhaps the most compelling reason not to do a deal with Iran is the Iranians themselves. Administration officials have recently waxed optimistic that the regional unrest sweeping the greater Middle East—which already has claimed the regimes of strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—could end up yielding similar results within the Islamic Republic. Indeed it might; the current political ferment taking place in the region, after all, can rightly be said to have begun not in Tunisia in December 2010, but in Iran in June 2009, when the fraudulent reelection Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency galvanized a groundswell of opposition to the Iranian regime. The pro-democracy "Green Movement" that emerged as a result of that discontent may now be largely marginalized because of massive regime pressure and repression. But conditions within Iran, from rising inflation to widespread unemployment to economic stagnation, suggest that Tehran could still go the way of Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. Against that backdrop, renewed "engagement" with the Iranian regime wouldn't just be futile; it would be fatal to prospects for real grassroots change within Iran.
Zakaria understands this, which is why his argument ends on a wholly unconvincing note: that strategic engagement, while it may not actually be possible, should be attempted anyway. If this seems like exceedingly thin policy gruel, that's because it is. Washington is indeed in desperate need of real, deep thinking about the next steps in its Iran policy. Specifically, it needs to figure out how existing sanctions be tightened, and what new ones can be applied; how Iran can be deterred and contained, both on the nuclear front and in places like Iraq and Afghanistan; and, perhaps most importantly, how fundamental change within the Islamic Republic can be nurtured and encouraged.
But returning to the same failed approach that characterized the first two years of the Obama administration, and which gave Iran precious time to add permanence to its nuclear effort, wouldn't be progress. It would be a dangerous distraction.