BY Samuel LaRussa

On Thursday, Oct. 1, the United States and Iran will engage in direct negotiations for the first time in 30 years. However, this will not be an occasion for pleasantries, but rather an opportunity for the United States to deliver an ultimatum: Iran must accept serious limitations to its nuclear program or face new, harsher economic sanctions from the international community.

Tensions between the West and Iran concerning Iran’s nuclear program have dramatically increased in recent weeks following Iran’s tests of several short and medium-range missiles and its disclosure that it is in the process of building a uranium-enrichment plant near the city of Qum, about one 100 miles south of Tehran. These events demonstrate that Iran is potentially close to developing weapons-grade nuclear material and an effective vehicle of delivery, two important components of a nuclear bomb. Iran insists that its nuclear program is intended for civilian energy production.

Despite this assertion, the Obama administration, believing Iran plans to build a nuclear weapon, has vowed to hold Iran ‘accountable” for its violations of international law and for its role in threatening to destabilize international peace. Last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved an American-sponsored resolution to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the disarmament abilities of the UN. If Iran refuses to accept the United States’ terms on Thursday in Geneva, Obama will then appeal to the other permanent members of the Security Council France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China to approve and enforce tougher economic sanctions, including a cutoff of investments to the country’s oil and gas industries and restrictions on Iran’s banks.

Notwithstanding Obama’s efforts, it is a futile hope that the Security Council will pass such a stringent package of sanctions. Russia and China both possess close economic and political ties to Tehran, and are unwilling to sacrifice their strategic interests in favor of America’s agenda. Despite Obama’s abandonment of the Bush administration’s plan to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic in an effort to win Russia’s support for the sanctions, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been reluctant to publicly announce his approval. Even less likely is the prospect of receiving China’s blessing, due to the extensive investments in Iran’s energy industries by Chinese firms and its inflating energy needs. Therefore, unless Iran agrees to limit to its nuclear program when it meets with the United States on Thursday, it is unlikely that international pressure strictly from the West will induce a major alteration in Iran’s decision-making.

But perhaps the fact that Iran will not face rapprochement for its nuclear ambitions will be a good thing. Rather than punish the real perpetrators of Iran’s rogue policies, embargoes against the energy industry would hurt average Iranian citizens and could reunite the country around beleaguered Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose legitimacy has been contested since his reelection in June, which is suspected of being rigged. Moreover, Obama’s attempts to rally the world around his cause may only increase Iran’s sense of encirclement and could fuel determination to construct a nuclear weapon to ensure security from perceived Western aggression.

Instead of sanctions, the Obama administration should engage Iran diplomatically. Scaling back hostilities and agreeing to work with Tehran in the context of a broader security understanding may relieve Iran’s insecurity and be more effective than zero-sum ultimatums and sanctions. Nixon attempted this strategy with China in the late 1960s, when he ordered to cease patrolling of the Taiwan Strait. Obama employed this maneuver when he altered missile shield plans to soothe Russian anxiety, and could employ similar tactics toward Iran. Detractors of this option point to the fact that the United States would be associating with an illegitimate government which is fostering violence through connections to Hamas and Hezbollah and is guilty of human rights violations. While arguably true, both China and Russia have governments of questionable legitimacy and policies, yet Washington is willing to associate with them. Why single out Iran?

So perhaps on Oct. 1, the first meeting in 30 years between the United States and Iran should be a time for pleasantries rather than demands and threats. It may be the only way to make serious progress toward mitigating the Iranian nuclear threat.

LaRussa is a member of
the class of 2011.

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