Talking to Iran Is Our Best Option

When it comes to engaging Iran — a signature theme of his foreign policy — Barack Obama is taking his share of criticism. Republican rival John McCain predictably denounces Obama’s call for direct talks with Iran, while his foreign policy aide Randy Scheunemann labels that approach nothing less than «unilateral cowboy summitry.»

More surprisingly, some Europeans also seem wary of Obama’s proposed change in U.S. policy. They argue that the international community must not abandon its official line that no negotiations with Iran may take place unless Tehran suspends its uranium enrichment program. This month unnamed European officials told The Post’s Glenn Kessler that they «feel strongly about continuing on the current path,» and one French analyst even accused Obama of unilaterally «dropping Security Council conditions.»

Both of these critiques are wrong. In fact, a U.S. willingness to talk to Iran, without preconditions, on the full range of issues dividing the two countries offers the best hope of rescuing a failed policy. Doing so would unite the United States and Europe, not drive them apart.

McCain’s argument that talking to Iran would only embolden it ignores the fact that 7 1/2 years of refusing to do so have left Iran stronger and closer to a nuclear bomb. That argument, combined with McCain’s claim that «there is only one thing worse than military action against Iran, and that is an Iran with a nuclear weapon,» implies that if the current policy does not work, the only option will be to bomb Iran. While virtually no Europeans advocate bombing, some insist that Iran accept their objective — suspending uranium enrichment — before opening negotiations. The origin of this stance — Iran’s refusal to abide by a previous agreement it had with Europe to suspend enrichment — is understandable, but it no longer makes sense. Normally, objectives are the subject of negotiations, not a precondition for them. There is no reason this case should be any different.

In fact, the Europeans are, for all intents and purposes, already negotiating with Iran. All of them, as well as the Russians and Chinese, have full diplomatic relations with Tehran. The Europeans have — together with Moscow and Beijing and on behalf of Washington — repeatedly presented Iran with a list of benefits it would receive if it agreed to suspend enrichment, and they have spent countless hours discussing these ideas with the Iranians.

The right approach now is to end the anomaly of the United States not sitting at the table and to abandon the fiction that this dialogue is not a negotiation. Does anyone think that the six-party talks involving North Korea could have made any progress if the United States had refused to participate or if we insisted that North Korea completely dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facility before we admitted that we were negotiating?

American and European nonproliferation objectives regarding Iran are identical: an Iran that has neither nuclear weapons nor the capacity to produce them. What Obama’s critics do not seem to realize is that the real penalties for Iran come in the form of economic and financial sanctions that can be increased even as negotiations go on, not in the form of a refusal to negotiate. Allegations that this would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions misrepresent what those resolutions actually say. They say that Iran should be penalized for failing to suspend enrichment, not that we cannot speak to Tehran before it does so.

Before engaging Iran, the United States should of course coordinate closely with the Europeans — and the Russians and Chinese. Such a dialogue should reinforce our determination to achieve common goals and develop a consensus on the precise sequencing of talks, penalties and possible agreements with Iran.

One thing clear to us after extensive discussions in recent months with senior officials in Western Europe, Moscow and Beijing is that, whatever quibbles some might have about terminology and preconditions, the prospect of an America willing to talk to Iran is widely welcomed.

Indeed, some senior European officials have told us privately that they do not believe the suspension condition is tenable. A change in U.S. policy, developed through close consultation with Europeans, could give them cover for dropping this unrealistic precondition.

Some say that talks with Iran are futile because its leaders are determined to develop nuclear weapons. That may well be the case, and, if so, the United States and its allies will have to convince them — and the Iranian people — that such a policy would come at a very high price and with large opportunities lost. Precisely because a nuclear-armed Iran is such a serious risk, we cannot afford to deprive ourselves of a tool that might help us prevent it. At the least, if Iran rebuffs our willingness to engage, we will be better placed to ask our allies to join us in tougher measures.

Iran claims that it seeks only the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the right to nuclear technology — not the bomb. A new U.S. approach is the most effective way to test that proposition.

Ivo Daalder and Philip Gordon, senior fellows at the Brookings Institution. They are unpaid, outside advisers to the Obama campaign, writing here in a personal capacity.