Call it President Obama's "October surprise." This past weekend, just days before tonight's much-anticipated presidential debate on foreign policy and national security, the New York Times reported that the White House appears to be on the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran—and that direct, one-on-one negotiations over the Islamic Republic's nuclear effort could take place in the near future, following the U.S. presidential election in November.
Of course, the White House has prudently denied that secret negotiations with Tehran over such talks are underway at all. It's a smart political play, since Iran has spiked the football on direct dialogue in the past (most notably, over security in post-Saddam Iraq during the Bush administration, when its leaders decided that playing an outsized role in Iraqi politics was more preferable to cooperation with the Coalition). If Iran chooses to do so again, the Administration can easily dismiss the recent rumors as so much hot air.
But what if it doesn't? In weighing the prudence of launching such negotiations now, policymakers in Washington, and the American public at large, would do well to remember a few things.
First, to the extent that Iran is considering talking to the U.S. at all, its interest is largely a function of growing economic pressure being levied against it by the West. Iran's rickety economy, according to a new study just released by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, is creaking under the collective weight of tightening Western sanctions. Earlier this month saw a massive, and potentially ruinous, devaluation of the Iranian national currency, the rial. And the regime's hard currency reserves could run out by mid-2014, or even sooner, according to modeling done recently by the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
As a result, Iran doesn't seem to have much of a bargaining advantage. Yet its leadership has staked out an exceedingly ambitious vision of their country as a nuclear power, and insisted that the acquisition of uranium enriched to 20 percent, well above the threshold necessary strictly for civilian energy generation, remains an "inalienable right." That means that, diplomatically speaking, the ball will be in the American court at any parlay—and that a deal with Iran is conceivable only if the White House acquiesces to many of Iran's nuclear terms and doesn't work to roll back its nuclear progress.
Second, time is decidedly not on our side. The inherent problem with the idea of nuclear diplomacy is that it confers tangible advantages to the Iranian regime. Talks can be expected to delay, at least temporarily, the application of new sanctions by the West. They give the Iranian regime precious time to further "sanctions-proof" its economy. And, unless it is coupled with a verifiable moratorium on uranium enrichment, a diplomatic track—particularly a protracted one—would give the Iranians additional weeks and even months to forge ahead with their nuclear development.
Today, the Iranians clearly need that kind of breathing room. Recent weeks have provided fresh proof just how fragile the Iranian economy actually is. Officials in Tehran have attempted to put a brave face on their current fiscal condition, but are simultaneously working overtime to mitigate the effects that international pressure is having on the solvency and stability of their regime. In this context, sitting down for talks with Iran now would represent the opposite of the United States pressing its political advantage.
Finally, the nuclear issue is only part of the problem. The media and general public have fixated on Iran's runaway nuclear program for so long that most people have forgotten that it represents only part of the larger strategic challenge posed by Iran. In fact, the Iranian regime's enduring support for international terrorism, and its destabilizing activities in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, poses as much of a threat to U.S. national security as does its pursuit of the bomb. In its quest for a deal over Iran's nuclear program, the White House might be tempted to gloss over these realities—or, worse still, to ignore them entirely.
There is, of course, the hope that direct negotiations—if they do in fact materialize at all—might succeed where so many other efforts by the U.S. and its allies over the past decade have failed. But at the end of the day, such hopes still don't make for much of a foreign policy.