Over at ForeignAffairs.com, Patrick Clawson has a brief essay that at once congratulates the Obama administration for its success in pressuring Iran back to the negotiating table, but bemoans the fact that sanctions take aim at the wrong goal. “To judge the effectiveness of Western sanctions against Iran,” writes Clawson, “it is important to first establish their purpose. U.S. officials and their European counterparts have set out a number of different goals for the sanctions regime, including deterring the proliferation of nuclear technology across the Middle East, as other countries imitate Iran, and persuading Iran to comply with the UN Security Council’s orders to suspend all nuclear enrichment. The sanctions have met some of those aims and failed to meet others. But for the Obama administration, they have succeeded in one crucial way — bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. The question, then, is not whether sanctions have worked but whether the strategy they serve is correct.”

For Clawson, the answer is clear. “Given Iran’s poor track record of honoring agreements,” he notes, “negotiations remain a gamble because they may never lead to an agreement, let alone one that can be sustained.” This may be quite right, as it happens. Leaving aside for the moment that Washington and its partners in Israel haven’t given Iran much latitude recently to act as anything other than a pariah state—surrounded by two American occupations, Russia to the north and arch-enemy Saudi Arabia immediately to the south—Iran hasn’t shown all that much good faith in its multilateral dealings.

You have to wonder, though, about Clawson’s proposed alternative. “Rather than focus on talks that may not produce a deal, then, the United States should place far more emphasis on supporting democracy and human rights in Iran. A democratic Iran would likely drop state support for terrorism and end its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, improving stability in the Middle East. And although Iran’s strongly nationalist democrats are proud of the country’s nuclear progress, their priority is to rejoin the community of nations, so they will likely agree to peaceful nuclearization in exchange for an end to their country’s isolation.”

For someone who has such little faith in multilateral negotiations with Iran, Clawson sure places a ton of stock in wishful thinking. Even if everything he suggests is true about a democratic Iran, such a country is a) nowhere in sight; and b) would be the product of tremendous, and tremendously long, processes of investment and influence. And assuming for the moment that Iran wasn’t being threatened with preemptory attacks against its territory, the nuts and bolts of encouraging democracy there suggest a timeline that stretches into the medium- and long-terms. To hear Clawson tell it, “The United States could assist democratic forces in Iran by providing money and moral support. It could fund people-to-people exchanges and student scholarships; support civil society groups providing assistance to Iranian activists; work closely with technology companies such as Google on how to transmit information to the Iranian people; and overhaul Voice of America’s Persian News Network, where journalistic standards have suffered under uneven management.”

These all sound like perfectly good approaches, and, in fact, were employed to great effect by the United States during the Cold War with Russia. And indeed, US efforts at democracy promotion in Iran have been underway for quite some time, though not as extensively as Clawson recommends. Trouble is, time is of the essence; the drum beat of war grows stronger with each passing month. Negotiations, even if they do not offer a perfect negotiated settlement, at least have the effect of keeping the attack dogs on their leash, thereby purchasing time for sanctions to increase the pressure on a regime (and people) already buckling under their weight.

Interesting, too, is Clawson’s observation that “It could also raise human rights abuses in every official meeting with Iranian officials, such as the ongoing nuclear negotiations, and bring Iranian rights violations to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.” Well sure, if they send representatives to talk in the first place—precisely the value-added of continued engagement with Iran.

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