"What do we do when diplomacy fails?" a State Department official working on the team of U.S. Iran policy architect Dennis Ross recently asked at the outset of a meeting on Iran, to the dismay of some of the members of outside groups in attendance.
That possibility is just one of several questions U.S. officials inside the interagency Iran policy process say they are considering. But they insist there is hardly a prevailng assumption the effort will fail, and they are doing everything in their power to make it succeed.
Just over four months into its time in office, the Obama administration is finding the Iran issue a hard slog. Its efforts to engage Tehran or develop leverage to convince it to curtail its nuclear program have yet to bear fruit. Some Washington Iran hands say there is a debate within the Obama administration over whether it's adequately seizing opportunities to get diplomacy with Iran underway, or adopting too cautious a diplomatic approach in the face of conflicting signals from Iran about whether it is even interested in coming to the table.
According to some Iran experts outside the administration, the NSC's senior director for Iran, Puneet Talwar, and U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke are pushing for more engagement, while the Ross camp expresses the most discouragement, including by what they have described to sources as a lack of response to various communiqués sent by the U.S. government to Tehran. The Ross team is said to have been anxious to get negotiations with Iran underway even before that country's presidential elections later this month, in order to give Tehran an accelerated deadline for responding to U.S. overtures -- an approach that the White House appears to have rejected.
People in the interagency process caution that there is far less division between any of the key players in U.S. Iran policy than such talk of a "battle royale" over Iran policy would imply. And they dispute criticism the policy is not sufficiently bold or comprehensive, as former U.S. government Mideast hands Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argued in a recent New York Times op-ed that was widely read -- and hotly debated -- among Iran watchers.
During the campaign, "Obama was using the Nixon-Kissinger type rapprochement with China analogy," regarding Iran, said Mann Leverett, an Iran expert formerly at the State Department and the NSC, in an interview. Mann Leverett favors a "grand bargain" that would put the full range of bilateral issues on the table all at once, but says Obama "has stepped back from that kind of policy" and is "falling into line" with an incrementalist, carrots and sticks approach that she believes Iran may very well reject.
Admittedly, Iran is a challenging policy puzzle. The administration is confronting a high degree of anxiety from pro-American Arab regimes and Persian Gulf states, not to mention Israel, about possible U.S.-Iran talks and even a possible U.S.-Iran deal, which they fear could come at their expense. Just getting Iran to agree to talks, especially in the runup to the country's presidential elections, scheduled for June 12, is far from assured (one Western diplomat said he rated the odds of the United States and Iran actually getting to the negotiating table at one in five). How to respond to the U.S. offer and overcome Iran's international isolation has become a topic of debate in the Iranian campaign -- a fact some credit Obama's outreach messages with helping generate.
Then there is the time factor. Some within the administration have argued it's a mistake to push for productive talks with Iran before the outcome of its presidential elections, and favor giving Iran more time to deal with the prospect of engagement with the United States, a subject that is ideologically fraught for its leadership. The Obama administration also finds itself under tremendous pressure from Israel and some domestic constituencies -- who fear Iran will use the time to get closer to a nuclear weapon -- not to let talks drag on beyond this coming fall. Although Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month that he thought he would be able to make a determination by the end of the year whether his efforts to engage Iran were succeeding, Israel has made clear in meetings with U.S. officials that it reserves the right to act unilaterally.
Administration officials point to Obama's April nonproliferation speech in Prague, and his Iranian New Year's video message to Iran in March as evidence that the president does have a grand strategic vision in mind. And there is less incrementalism to the policy than some critics charge, one official said on condition of anonymity. The administration won't know if there is a bold deal to be had before it actually starts talking to the Iranians, he added -- a prospect that requires Iran to say yes to talks.
"It's rather foolish to assume that the Iranians can't handle negotiations," said influential former NSC Iran hand Gary Sick, now a professor at Columbia University. "I just disagree with the whole business that the grand bargain is the only way to make progress."
Sick argues that Obama should resist pressure from different camps to set up hard deadlines and overly rigid benchmarks that will doom the effort prematurely.
"If they try to get the other countries to agree that if Iran doesn't agree to do this but this specific date, we are going to do xyz -- that is exactly what the Bush administration did and it failed," Sick said. "If you have a deadline that is too short, sanctions that are too strong, all telegraphed in advance," it will fail, he cautioned.
So far, Sick thinks Obama is resisting such overly rigid formulations. "Obama [told Netanyahu] he would decide by the end of the year [if engagement was working]," he observed. "He's not saying ‘The nuclear issue will be solved by the end of the year, or we're out of here.' He didn't say that. ... The Iranians understood that perfectly well."
Former Pentagon official and Harvard nonproliferation expert Graham Allison says the Obama administration and U.S. allies have yet to face the real dilemma: the fact that Iran mastered the technology to enrich uranium during the Bush years means that no policy option can ever take that ability away. "Everyone is trying to get their head around the challenges they face as they turn over one rock after another and find that they are left with a really horrible inheritance," Allison told The Cable. "The big takeaway from all this on both Iran and North Korea is what a lousy hand Bush left Obama."