Don’t let Iran be a second Iraq

Just as with the lead-up to the Iraq War, the pathway to war with Iran will be paved with false assertions, self-fulfilling saber rattling and political weakness that might seem insignificant now, but will in retrospect turn out to be disastrous.

As nearly every current and former U.S. military and intelligence official has warned, war with Iran would not just have immense costs, it would likely be self-defeating. When the Bush administration considered a monthlong bombing campaign against Iran, “the consensus was that it would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent: an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret,” according to former CIA Director Michael Hayden.

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But the only real alternative to war, a diplomatic resolution through sustained negotiations, has been largely kept off the table by hard-liners on all sides of the conflict who have demonized the very idea of engagement. That the United States has, throughout history, had the courage to stand face to face with dictatorial regimes like the Soviet Union and China to secure our interests has been apparently lost in the political winds.

Now, just as it appears that Iran, the United States and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) are finally ready for a new round of diplomacy, some are working to constrain and sabotage diplomacy yet again.

Earlier this month, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), introduced a resolution — expected to be pushed hard by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during its upcoming conference — that contradicts the U.S. red line established by the president regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The measure severely constrains U.S. diplomatic options by stating that even a civilian nuclear program in Iran cannot be contained, which does not just directly lower the threshold for war, but is a non-starter for talks.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned that the Graham-Lieberman-Casey resolution could sabotage diplomacy at a critical moment. “I really believe that these negotiations should proceed without any resolutions from us right now,” she told CQ. “This is a very sensitive time. Candidly, I think diplomacy should have an opportunity to work without getting involved in political discussions about a resolution.”

It is high time for the adults in the room to grab the reigns of our Iran policy.

Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) have begun circulating a bipartisan letter to President Obama in support of a diplomatic initiative to implement an inspections-based solution to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and prevent war. The stakes could not be higher, and the demands of the moment can only be met if the efforts are sustained and given the domestic political space to succeed.

We have only had two rounds of diplomacy with Iran since Obama took office, and they were both scuttled prematurely by domestic political factors in Washington and Tehran. The confidence building deal the United States thought it had achieved in October 2009 was shelved by political infighting in Tehran. And when Brazil and Turkey thought they had delivered the same deal months later in Tehran, the Obama administration rejected it due in large part to political factors at home — including pressure from Congress.

But some are intent on playing political games that are all too reminiscent of the shameful campaign to drag us into Iraq. The sponsors of the Senate resolution glibly claimed their measure supports the president’s red line that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable. The president has said no such thing. Nuclear weapons capability is such a nebulous and ill-defined term that every country possessing civilian nuclear capability — from Norway to Canada to Japan to Iran — could technically be considered to have the capability to build a weapon if they so chose. The president and every other top administration official who has commented on the issue have been very clear and precise: Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon is the U.S. red line.

To stake the question of war on such a deliberate confusion — and to misstate the policy articulated by the commander in chief — is as dangerous as it is shameless. Time exists for diplomacy to work, but not if we continue to allow political tricks or meekness to sabotage diplomacy and prevent us from securing our vital national security interests.

Abdi is the director of policy for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Parsi is the president of NIAC and the author of A Single Roll of the Dice — Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.