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Intensify diplomacy with Iran

Posted: January 3, 2012 - 12:05am

Now that we’re finally out of one unnecessary war, the drumbeats for the next one are growing louder. Let’s hope that this time the voice of reason prevails over the itchy trigger finger. The Next Big Enemy, of course, is Iran. And the danger in a presidential election year is that President Barack Obama will feel pressured to sound more hawkish about it.

One of the key reasons Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries was his opposition to the Iraq War and her yea vote on a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to take military action against Iraq. But since taking office, Obama has not exactly been President Softie. He’s the president who gave the order to execute Osama bin Laden, who got NATO to provide the bombing campaign that protected Libyan rebels and led to the death of Moammar Gadhafi, who sharply increased the use of drones to kill terrorists.

So you might think that Republicans would focus their rhetoric on Obama’s handling of our struggling economy and back away from attacking his foreign policy. But the argument that Democrats are weak on national defense is such a time-honored page in the GOP playbook that Republicans won’t be able to resist using it. And the president’s obvious vulnerability is Iran. Though Obama agrees with Republicans that a nuclear-armed Iran would be intolerable, he has made a public commitment to diplomacy.

In the case of the ancient civilization that became our enemy three decades ago _ after the revolution that overthrew the hated shah that the United States had installed _ Republicans seem to think diplomacy equals appeasement. So count on the GOP using the word a lot in 2012, as some of its candidates did in early December.

But a new book by a respected Iran scholar, Trita Parsi, makes the case that Obama has not taken diplomacy nearly far enough. Its title, “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran,” comes from an Obama official describing how far the administration had gone down that road _ not a constant, all-hands-on-deck effort, but one brief roll of the dice.

“I make the argument that limited diplomacy was tried, but it was not exhausted,” Parsi said in an interview. “It needs time, and it needs political space.” But rhetoric here and Iran’s actions narrowed that space, the political maneuverability to pursue diplomacy. “Obama has to fight to expand the political space,” Parsi said.

What would he have to do? Something as constantly repeated as Bush’s warnings about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war. But selling a war is a lot easier than selling patient, secret diplomacy.

Still, the war option in Iran is not pretty. The Iranians aren’t dumb. They’ve spread those facilities wide and deep. Bombing might degrade their nuclear program, but it wouldn’t stop it. Even if the bombs fell from Israeli planes, not American, Iran would assume America was involved, and it would take action against U.S. interests. They could help the forces arrayed against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for example, and close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers, sending oil prices soaring.

So, what about sanctions? “None of these sanctions so far have been of such a magnitude to cause the Iranians to recalculate their policy, to recalculate their cost-benefit analysis,” Parsi said. If the rhetoric and the call for more sanctions keeps heating up, that might be unhelpful. “As time passes, the argument inside Iran between just having the option and actually building the bomb may sway to the wrong side,” Parsi said.

So what we need is real, not halfhearted, diplomacy. As Winston Churchill put it: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

• Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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