When the White House invited a small group of senior journalists for a background briefing on Iran in early August, few expected the President to be the speaker. Barack Obama sparked excitement when he stated after a lengthy and healthy expression of scepticism about Iran's readiness to reach a compromise, that the door was still open to diplomacy.
Some of those present assumed immediately that President Obama was offering them a scoop about a new diplomatic initiative. Yet the US is not about to offer a new incentives package to Iran. Nor is there any novelty in this approach — the diplomatic incentives that Washington, the four other members of the UN Security Council and Germany offered Tehran in June 2008 not only remain on the table but have now been incorporated in the text of UN Resolution 1929 and are part of the EU sanctions legislation. The door always remained open for a return to negotiations — and there's the rub.
The international community has reached a crossroads regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions — one where it finally agrees more pressure is needed if Tehran is to be prevented from crossing the nuclear finish line. Yet, despite the scepticism, the international community is ready to embark on a new diplomatic journey if Iran signals its readiness to talk — though its record in the last eight years shows that Tehran uses diplomacy as a stalling tactic. President Obama's diplomatic efforts have no doubt paid off, to his credit. The EU has also shown global leadership — and unprecedented courage — in passing tough sanctions for the first time since 2003.
But no matter how broad and sustained, sanctions have a major flaw. They are aimed at persuading the Iranian regime to return to negotiations to convince the mullahs to change their nuclear policy. The international community would be content if the mullahs' regime survived, as long as it renounced its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
This is remarkably naive. Years of negotiations accompanied by sanctions have failed to yield results. Iran has crossed every red line and ignored every ultimatum set by the international community. There is no reason to believe that it would be different now, especially given the internal fragility of the regime. Shaken by an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy and challenged from within both by democratic opposition and disgruntled elements of the clerical and revolutionary power structure, the regime is hardly in a mood to show moderation. Especially in such circumstances, concessions are a sign of weakness. One year after Iran's rigged elections and the wave of repression that followed, Western nations should finally recognise that their best allies against the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic are the Iranian people and their aspiration to live without fear. Sanctions should therefore have two purposes: to delay Iran's nuclear programme by sabotaging its procurement efforts and to drive a wedge between the regime and the people.