The latest round of nuclear talks had an all-too-familiar result: more time for Tehran and less time for the international community to prevent a nuclear-armed theocracy. A week prior, Tehran’s envoy to the IAEA had repeated in no uncertain terms that the regime will "never" stop enriching uranium. Based on this and an almost decade-old history of Tehran’s attempts to exploit talks as a way to buy more time for its nuclear endeavours, chances of a breakthrough had already almost vanished. So, what was the West really trying to achieve in Istanbul last week?
On the eve of the fruitless talks, several high-ranking military and security officials from the three last consecutive US administrations had warned in a conference in Washington that "time is running out" when it comes to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and, in addition to sanctions, new options have to be explored instead of a failed policy of engagement.
One of those options, they said, is to remove the illegitimate barriers the US State Department has placed on the path of the democratic opposition.
Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security Secretary, told the Washington conference, "The strategy of peaceful engagement, well intentioned, has been totally ineffective and counterproductive."
Former National Security Advisor to President Obama, General James Jones, echoed a growing sentiment in Washington and perhaps even the White House when he said, "I'm tired of turning the other cheek where Iran is concerned", adding "hope is not a strategy."
Former commander of US forces in the Middle East, Gen. Anthony Zinni, stressed, "We had the illusion that there could be meaningful dialogue. We chased that illusion and it didn't work."
Time is ripe for a fresh look at the US policy on Iran.
Former CIA Director, James Woolsey, former FBI director Louis Freeh and former State Department Policy Planning Director, Mitchell Reiss, offered an option that has long been on the table but sidelined in order to "chase the illusion" of meaningful dialogue. That option is to lift the terrorist designation of the main opposition group, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), according to the officials.
The listing, which originated in 1997 as an ill-advised attempt to "curry favour" with the Iranian regime, was and remains to be "unjustified," former Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, said.
"It is important not only that the designation be removed but also that it be removed quickly."
Judge Mukasey, who presided over the trial of terrorists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, added, "The Iranian regime is in the enviable position of having the United States designate as a terrorist organisation a group of Iranians who are a threat to that regime."
The sheer weight of the experience and expertise represented in the Washington conference, which included both Democrats and Republicans, demands exclusive attention on the part of policymakers in Washington as they try to hammer out the next steps.
Even if the Obama administration insists on running after the illusion of meaningful dialogue, it should heed the suggestion that delisting the MEK would have a profound impact on the negotiations because it would signal a significant change in attitude towards the regime. In the least, it will grab Tehran’s undivided attention.
The Obama administration has appeared unwilling so far to acknowledge the main Iranian opposition’s legitimacy and credibility for fear that it would complicate nuclear talks. There are two answers to that. First, Washington does not need to take an explicit stand on the opposition’s nature; it can reserve judgment on that front. But it does need to stop ostracising the MEK for the benefit of a terrorist regime.
Second, even explicit rhetorical support for the opposition can help, not hinder, negotiations. At the conference in Washington, Ambassador Reiss, who has an impeccable negotiations record, said, "Having spent a large part of my career in negotiations with some pretty bad actors, supporting the opposition would give any American negotiator more leverage, not less leverage at the negotiating table."
He went on to say, "there is no reason to be shy about doing more to support the Iranian opposition. A good first step would be delisting the MEK."
That is the most favourable option, and remains the only viable one that can prevent the unfavourable option: war. Washington should not worry if Tehran ends up liking its approach. It needs to worry about the interests of the US, the Iranian people and global peace and security, all of which will benefit from a firm stance against the regime.
As the policy of engagement proves futile and sanctions fail to stop the regime’s nuclear program, President Obama should reflect hard on the Washington conference’s message while keeping his eyes squarely on a fast-ticking clock.