Iran Sanctions: Time for Engagement 2.0

The Obama administration has a number of reasons to be satisfied with the outcome of the U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution. To begin with, to the extent that the administration managed to successfully implement its stated plan over the past 18 months with regard to Iran, it is a political victory. Given the U.S. domestic opposition to initially engaging Tehran, and the subsequent challenges (Russia and China) to shepherding the resolution package through the Security Council, it’s even a significant political victory. And to the extent that the sanctions seem to stand up to scrutiny, it’s far from a hollow one.

But hopefully the administration will use this political victory, and the position of strength it provides, to reassess the basic assumptions and fundamental objectives of its Iran policy. Otherwise it risks watching its political victory transformed into strategic defeat.

Specifically, President Barack Obama should use his current position of strength to make the kind of bold gesture of engagement that U.S. domestic opposition and Iran’s unsettled domestic politics prevented him from making last year. And he should also be magnanimous in victory, by taking immediate steps toward healing the relationships with Brazil and Turkey.

It appears that both the U.S. and Iran have signaled their willingness to continue trying to hammer out the fuel swap agreement, with Iran identifying Brazil and Turkey as its preferred interlocutors. The Obama adminsitration should immediately encourage that process, and make it clear, either publicly or through back channels, that in return for well-defined confidence-building measures on Iran’s part — i.e., successful implementation of an acceptable fuel swap agreement and Iranian ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol of intrusive inspections — the U.S. could live with a domestic Iranian enrichment program.

At the same time, Obama should continue to build on the foundation of today’s victory to put in place the kind of long-term containment strategy that, even if it fails to keep Iran from achieving a de facto or outright nuclear weapons capability, will at least limit the fallout. That means setting another timeline and benchmarks for engagement before pursuing further U.S. and EU sanctions.

But what’s needed is another “open hand.” Because so far, all that Obama has achieved is an uninspiring plan, well-executed. Now it’s time for a more ambitious opening.

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