Iran presents a serious threat to U.S. and regional security, one that would grow immensely if its nuclear program produces weapons. The United States must set out on a relentless search for a better way to get at this seemingly unknowable regional power. Without that patient search for different ways to deal with Tehran, Washington will be stuck with a policy that will not change Iran’s practices or its regime and could lead to a catastrophic war.
We and our colleagues in the Iran Project — an initiative of ours that has suggested diplomatic strategies and encouraged direct U.S.-Iran discussions for nearly a decade — have for three years proposed ways to contain Iran’s nuclear program, wall it off from developing weapons and engage Iran in a dialogue on other regional issues. It is not too late.
History teaches that engagement and diplomacy pay dividends that military threats do not. Deployment of military force can bring the immediate illusion of “success” but always results in unforeseen consequences and collateral damage that complicate further the achievement of America’s main objectives. Deploying diplomats with a strategy while maintaining some pressure on Iran will lower Tehran’s urgency to build a bomb and reduce the danger of conflict.
The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action. Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost. It is a lesson that those urging military action against Iran have failed to learn. Clearly, the Iraq war did not build “the defenses of peace” in their minds. And such efforts must truly fail before more forceful action is made in a genuinely multilateral action, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.
Acheson, that brilliant strategist and close friend of Archibald MacLeish, criticized advocates of “massive retaliation” in the 1950s. It would be mad, he said, to “embrace disaster in order to escape anxiety.” Greater knowledge and closer contact with an enemy reduce anxiety and reveal surer ways to avoid disaster.