With only a month left in my contract in Sierra Leone, I decided to change this into a more political oriented blog.
McCain spoke recently at the powerful Jewish lobby AIPAC, where he sketched his approach to Iran. Democratic blogs like Huffington Post, Democracy Arsenal, Yglesias, and others of course have been jumping all over his "confrontational" approach, for instance arguing as David Shorr and Ilan Goldenberg do, that there should be direct talks with Iran. Some of the evidence they use to illustrate the value of engagement with Iran is ironic. They point to the 2003 letter sent to Cheney proposing a dialogue. They note the pro-American Iranian youth. They reflect on Larijani's rise to the speaker of the parliament, harkening a more pragmatic voice as opposed to Ahmadinejad. They downplay Ahmadinejad's role in foreign policy, especially now as even hardline clerics begin to turn against him, and of course, downplay the general threat to posed by Iran based, in part, on the 2007 NIE estimate.
But most of these examples provide evidence for a "confrontational" approach, not the conciliatory engagement advocated by the bloggers or scholars like Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr. The NIE estimate says with "high confidence" that Iran stopped its program in 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, and the 2003 letter was also after the invasion of Iraq. Implying that like Libya's WMD disarmament, the invasion of Iraq might have led to some of the most substantial accomplishments in WMD and nuclear disarmament.
Ahmadinejad's influence in Iran has also waned as the US and international community (even the IAEA belatedly) has become more serious and united in opposition to Iran's nuclear program. And yes, his economic policies deserve much of the blame for weakening domestic support, but all the democratic, progressive bloggers also note that the sanctions have been hurting Iran's economy (ergo, based on their own logic, sanctions have helped create divisions in Iran and given space for a more pragmatic approach).
The simple fact is that the evidence suggests Iran responds more to pressure than just engagement. Clinton's endless overtures to Iran; Europe's endless offers of incentives to Iran; and numerous US offers to talks with Iran have gotten us virtually nothing. The only actions that have gotten either internal divisions in Iran, Iran to halt it's nuclear program in 2003, or Iran to actually reach out to the US for a dialogue have been because of pressure, not engagement. Even many Iranian diplomats admit this privately - that Iran didn't take the US seriously until we blew up some of their ships and ports.
Perhaps there's some compelling evidence hidden away that engagement has really worked with Iran. I haven't seen it, and given that even the advocates of engagement point to the results of confrontation to support their position, one has to wonder if such evidence can be found.
While I'm not an advocate of military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities or otherwise, we'd be remiss to think that direct talks and engagement are likely to produce anything unless they are coupled with serious pressure. Following Acheson's advice on negotiations, I tend to think we should focus on building up "positions of strength", increase multilateral and unilateral pressure on Iran, and also show the Iranian people that if Iran changes its behavior the US can and will really help them. Iran respects strength. If the US builds up its strength, keeps the door open for negotiations (at the lower levels first - which incidentally McCain supports, just not presidential talks), Iran will want to talk to US. After all, as the Democratic bloggers point out so well, the US still has most power regionally. We just have to make that power more usable.
(One last note on Iran's threat. I don't understand why people get so offended at the thought of military strikes against Iran. If they take US targeted military strikes against Iran as acts of war, why haven't Iranian backed terrorist attacks for the past 20+ years been considered acts of war? Iran kills US soldiers and citizens around the world; US does nothing, and then the US talks of hitting Iranian military sites and everyone criticizes the US confrontation, rather than noting US restraint. Nor should we be deluded about the existential threat to Israel that a nuclear Iran would pose. One nuclear weapon in Tel Aviv would destroy the Israel - and incidentally, Iranian "moderates" like Rafsanjani also make this argument, not just the crazies like Ahmadinejad.)