Only 12 minutes into his presidency, Barack Obama reached out to the Muslim world and Iran, offering America's hand of friendship if Iran would in turn unclench its fist. Yet three years later, we are closer to war than we were in the last years of the Bush administration, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telling the Washington Post there is a "strong likelihood" of an Israeli strike this spring. How did we get here?
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that Obama's diplomacy with Iran failed. It did not. As I argue in my new book A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy With Iran, it was prematurely abandoned. Obama's intention was genuine, but his vision for diplomacy was soon undermined, for four reasons: pressure from Israel and its powerful allies in Congress, and to a lesser extent from Saudi Arabia and France, to adopt a confrontational policy; the June 2009 election mayhem in Iran and the subsequent repression and human rights abuses, which hardened the regime in Tehran and narrowed Obama's space for diplomacy; Obama's early adoption of a contradictory "dual track" policy, combining diplomacy with escalating pressure on Tehran; and Obama's unwillingness to create more domestic political space for diplomacy by challenging a status quo in Washington that is set on enmity.
The Netanyahu government and its Washington allies compromised Obama's vision in four ways. First, they insisted that diplomacy be given an unrealistically tight deadline of 12 weeks. Second, although Obama was potentially willing to accept enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil under strict inspections, Israel demanded complete dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program, an unachievable objective that rendered diplomacy dead on arrival. Third, the Israelis and their hardline U.S. allies pushed for sanctions before diplomacy was even tried. Obama pushed back at first, but after the Iranian election scandal, the pro-sanctions camp got the upper hand.
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