Back from the Brink: Official Rhetoric Has Helped Fuel an Escalation of Tension between the United States and Iran. Do Recent Negotiations Mark a Change in Direction, or Just a Temporary Detour from the Highway to Military Attack?

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO possible war with Iran. After threatening Tehran for months and darkly warning that "all options are on the table," the United States in June suddenly switched gears and joined with other major countries in offering to negotiate. This was a hopeful development that for the moment reduced the risk of military attack against Iran.

The debate within the United States over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program is by no means settled, however. Neoconservatives are pushing for a more confrontational approach, while pragmatists are urging patience and direct U.S. engagement. The outcome of this debate will have enormous implications for the prospects of peace, not only in Iran but more broadly in the region.

The proposals offered to Iran by a coalition of European countries, the United States, Russia, and China tend to confirm what many critics in the U.S. have been saying about the best way to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions. Threatening sanctions and the use of force against Iran is counterproductive and will only harden the Iranian position. Incentives will be more successful than sanctions in gaining Tehran's cooperation. Diplomatic engagement is the most realistic strategy for preventing the further spread of weapons and war in the region.

THE PROPOSALS PRESENTED this spring to Iran are a step in the right direction, but they do not go far enough toward addressing the roots of the conflict. The incentives package reportedly allows Iran to purchase light-water nuclear reactors, which are less proliferation-prone than its current reactors. It includes a promise of Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization and a pledge to lift restrictions on the Iranian purchase of modern civil aircraft. The package also includes an implicit commitment from the United States to talk with Iran, although only indirectly as part of a multilateral process.

The incentives offer does not resolve the underlying hostilities between the United States and Iran. The two countries have been in a virtual state of war for decades. The United States has been hostile toward the Islamic revolution since its victory in 1979. Washington is also deeply concerned about Tehran's support for Hezbollah terrorist attacks against Israel. The United States has maintained draconian sanctions on Iran since the 1980s and supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Tehran. It will be difficult to resolve the nuclear dispute between the two countries without an easing of tensions and the beginning of diplomatic dialogue.

The United States could break the ice by offering to lift some of the economic sanctions that are now in place. This could be done in ways that benefit the sectors of Iranian society that are most likely to encourage cooperation with the West. The United States could also begin a phased release of the estimated $17 billion in Iranian assets that has remained frozen in U.S. banks since 1979. Washington could offer to drop its opposition to file Iranian pipeline project in central Asia. There are numerous actions that the U.S. government could take to signal a desire for normalizing relations, in exchange for guarantees of Iranian compliance with nonproliferation norms.

These and other incentive offers should be the subject of direct talks between Washington and Tehran. The U.S. refusal to sit down with Iranian officials is counterproductive politically. The discussions between the European governments and Iran have value, but there is no substitute for direct dialogue between Washington and Tehran.

THE MOST IMPORTANT incentive and by far the biggest carrot Washington could offer would be a formal pledge to refrain from military action against Iran as part of a binding nonproliferation agreement. Security assurances are the key to persuading potential proliferators to refrain from building atomic bombs. Assurances from the United States would dramatically alter Iran's security calculus and ease fears of potential military attack. …