Every season, it seems, brings another round of nuclear diplomacy with Iran. This fall promises to be no different; in the near future, if current projections hold, Washington and Tehran will sit down for new talks over the Islamic republic's persistent quest for an atomic capability.
But what is there to talk about, really? Iranian officials already have made it clear that the very thing the international community wants desperately to address - Iran's nuclear program - won't truly be on the table in the coming parlay. "We will not be talking with the Western party about the nuclear energy issue in this round of the negotiations," said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to reporters several weeks ago. More recently, Mr. Ahmadinejad himself has ruled out the possibility that Iran's nuclear file will be in play during initial talks with the 5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany). In other words, Tehran is angling for talks to discuss the possibility of eventually having more talks that might at some point touch upon its nuclear program.
All of which fits neatly into Iran's time-tested strategy of buying time until it crosses the nuclear Rubicon. It is an approach that Tehran has tried before, with positive results. Just eight years ago, revelations that Iran was building a massive, clandestine nuclear program prompted a bout of frenzied diplomacy from the EU-3 countries: Germany, France and Great Britain. That process delayed the referral of Iran's nuclear file to the United Nations Security Council by more than two years, buying Iran valuable time to forge ahead with its nuclear effort.
More recently, Iran deftly exploited the Obama administration's penchant for "engagement" to its advantage. Throughout 2009, it repeatedly flirted with diplomatic overtures from the White House but never committed to a durable negotiating track that would truly put its nuclear endeavor on the table in a meaningful way. The elusive promise of Iranian cooperation, however, was enough to temper the administration's enthusiasm for serious energy sanctions, at least temporarily.
Iran, of course, never had any intention of altering its nuclear trajectory - or even of slowing down the pace of its nuclear advances long enough to allay international concerns. Rather, it understood a simple fact about American negotiating behavior: The United States tends to see diplomatic carrots and strategic sticks as sequential rather than complementary and wields them in that fashion.
That goes a long way toward explaining Iran's revived interest in "engagement" today. Since the passage of new international and U.S. energy sanctions last summer, the Islamic republic's energy trade has taken a nose dive. Skittish foreign suppliers, wary of potential economic penalties from the United States and European governments, have begun to curb their shipments of gasoline to Iran, with noticeable results. Iranian imports of refined petroleum - which accounts for 30 percent or more of the Iranian regime's annual energy consumption - have plummeted by two-thirds or more over the past three months. Without adequate domestic refining capacity, Iran is, quite simply, running out of gas. By engaging Washington anew, officials in Tehran clearly hope to slow - or even reverse - this trend.
Sadly, Team Obama seems inclined to let them. White House officials have made clear in recent days that they view their approach to Iran in much the same way they did a year ago: as a simple choice between "engagement or pressure." That formula strongly suggests that a revival of negotiations between Washington and Tehran will be accompanied by a reduction of economic pressure as a confidence-building measure intended to secure Iranian cooperation.
That, of course, is precisely the outcome the Islamic republic wants. It's also exactly what the United States should avoid. After years of obfuscation and delay, Tehran knows full well what it must do to prove it is willing to truly engage with the United States on its nuclear program - and to reassure the international community that its atomic efforts are peaceful. Our sanctions policy must reflect this reality and hold the Iranian regime to account. Anything less would be a blow to international security and a boon for Iran's nuclear ambitions.