In laying out the American approach to Iran, Clinton showed how little US foreign policy has changed since the last years of the Bush administration. President Bush famously explained that he would not negotiate with unfriendly regimes because he didn’t want to “reward bad behaviour”. He wanted states like Iran to change of their own accord, not as a result of negotiation but as a pre-condition for being allowed to negotiate.
Clinton embraces this same idea. She rejects the view that as Iran becomes more threatening and approaches nuclear breakout capacity, diplomatic engagement becomes more urgent. Instead she takes the opposite view. “We don’t want to be engaging while they are building their bomb,” she said this week.
Whether the increasingly splintered regime in Iran would or could respond to a serious offer of negotiations is highly uncertain. What is clear, though, is that the regime has not been offered this option. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has made clear that it is interested in negotiating only one thing: curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme. No country, however, would agree to negotiate only on the question that an adversary singles out, without the chance to bring up others that it considers equally urgent.
A more promising approach would be to tell Iran what President Nixon told China 35 years ago: if you agree to consider all of our complaints, we will consider all of yours. Clinton has made clear that the US will make no such offer. Instead it clings to the decades-old American policy toward Iran: make demands of the regime, threaten it, pressure it, sanction it, seek to isolate it, and hope for some vaguely defined positive result.
Some of America’s most seasoned diplomats are eager for the chance to see what kind of a “grand bargain” they could strike with Iran. An ideal one would curb the nuclear programme, guarantee some measure of protection for brave Iranians who are being brutalised for defending democratic ideals, and give Iran security guarantees that might lure it out of its isolation and lay the groundwork for a new security architecture in the Middle East. Instead the US has fallen back on sabre-rattling. This pleases Israel, war hawks in Washington, so-called American allies like Saudi Arabia – and most of all, President Ahmadinejad and his reactionary comrades in Tehran. They thrive on confrontation, and are doing all they can to bait the US into attacking their country. It is a strategy as effective as it is dangerous.