American foreign policy is a complex endeavor. For those of us on the outside, its development and execution are hard to follow and tricky to evaluate, especially since much of our information comes from our government.
Few countries in the world have caused the United States more heartburn than Iran, going back at least to the Iran hostage crisis 40 years ago. There are many reasons to be critical of Iran, which has repeatedly challenged our interests, including its abuse of its own people, its threats toward our allies and its instigation of regional conflict.
Most recently, the United States, along with much of the rest of the world, blamed Iran for attacks on Saudi oil facilities that dramatically raised tensions in the region.
But our policy toward Iran moves in contradictory directions. We threaten to use force, use the “ultimate option” of a military strike, as the President has suggested. Yet he has often said he doesn’t want to go to war with Iran or become more deeply entrenched in the Middle East.
In foreign policy, we often encounter the difficulty of getting the opposing parties to meet and talk seriously with one another to resolve diplomatic impasses – and it is an endless frustration. We blame Iran for problems in the Middle East – often with good reason, but we also need to recognize that these problems simply cannot be resolved without talking to Iran.
Talking would force us to speak with clarity. What is our objective? Is it to force a change of government or merely to change its behavior? Is our policy of applying sanctions (“maximum pressure”) working? We’ve gone about as far down that road as we can, and the pressure hasn’t changed Iran’s behavior. What’s next?
We should talk with our allies. Whatever we seek requires working with them, but our “America first” approach discourages multilateral efforts.
Some talking can make things worse. Heated rhetoric complicates getting to talks. So how we talk makes a big difference.
Today, no talks are taking place between U.S. and Iranian officials. Our differences simply cannot be overcome if we don’t talk. Getting to talks with Iran will not be easy, but such talks are needed to reduce the risks of a serious conflict based on miscalculation or disproportionate response.
The Middle East today is one miscalculation away from a regional war. We need a much stronger effort to start talks with the Iranians.
By Lee H. Hamilton