Threats and ultimatums do not constitute an effective foreign policy.
Adversaries, even weak ones, rarely surrender when they have a gun pointed at their heads. Americans have learned that lesson the hard way during the past 50 years with our costly failures to pummel enemies into submission in Vietnam, Afghanistan and especially Iraq.
Anyone who thinks the same script will work in today’s Middle East is just not paying attention. That is one reason why this most recent deal with Iran is a good one.
Critics of the Iran nuclear talks say the United States should not negotiate with a government so hostile to U.S. interests. But there is a long tradition of American diplomacy with aggressive adversaries.
During the 19th century, the United States depended on the British Empire to protect the seas around North America and enforce our Monroe Doctrine, despite the continued British seizure of American ships and the forced impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy.
During the First World War, Woodrow Wilson supported the autocratic Russian tsar, a man responsible for frequent massacres. Franklin Roosevelt opened relations with Moscow’s communist government during the Great Depression, and he made Josef Stalin, one of the century’s most homicidal tyrants, a close ally during the Second World War.
The most enduring American strategic breakthroughs during the Cold War included working relationships with former Nazis in Germany; the emperor responsible for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; Chinese leader Mao Zedong, whose forces killed tens of thousands of Americans in Korea; and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who initially increased the use of force in Afghanistan.
This record of diplomatic engagement with bad guys does not inspire applause from moralists, but foreign policy is not driven by moral considerations. Interests shape international behavior, and a successful foreign policy appeals to the self-interest of adversaries, encouraging them to do things we want and refrain from doing things we oppose.
Success does not come from defeating the adversary, but from convincing him that he will also get a “win” from reform. Time and again, American diplomatic relationships with “evil” leaders have increased American leverage and encouraged reform. Isolation of adversaries has rarely worked.
This is the necessary context for judging the recent diplomatic breakthrough among Iran, the United States and five other countries. The agreement is far from perfect in its moral and technical dimensions, and nothing in the document prevents Iran from continuing its support for terrorism. But a complete disavowal of nuclear capabilities and terrorism is not a realistic expectation. We know that because for more than 30 years American presidents have demanded these Iranian commitments, without any success.
What the nuclear agreement offers is time and openness — delaying the day when Iran might become a nuclear power and allowing deeper American and other Western penetration of Iranian society. This is the most realistic strategy for encouraging beneficial reforms. As in Germany, Japan, China and Russia during the Cold War, we have reason to believe that more trade, travel, media access and direct conversation will give powerful Iranian figures an interest in cooperation that outweighs the urge to be destructive.
President George W. Bush made the same bet when he opened tentative diplomatic relations and released the frozen assets of Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, a proven sponsor of terrorists who killed Americans.
We cannot be sure that the opening with Iran will change anything. But there is no reason to believe that scuttling the deal will be better. Without this agreement, Iran will have the capability to develop nuclear weapons in a few months. The international sanctions on Iran will crumble as Russia and China expand their cheating, and our European allies pursue their own economic interests, convinced that the United States undermined a chance for peace.
The Iranians will be stronger without an agreement, and the United States will be isolated from our most important Western allies.
If we want to pursue a strategic transformation of the region aimed at reform and not war, we should accept the opportunity presented by the agreement. The advocates of change, following a long and successful American diplomatic tradition, recognize that we must have the courage to work with the enemy, rather than wish him away.
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and holds a joint appointment in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is “Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
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