Iran's nuclear programme has returned to the forefront of the US presidential campaign as John McCain tries desperately to scare voters in Florida and Pennsylvania from choosing Barack Obama. The Democratic candidate would, he says, negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme. The Bush administration has saddled the next president with a bankrupt strategy and a crisis rapidly spinning out of control. Remarkably, there is widespread agreement among foreign policy experts of both parties that changing course and negotiating with Iran early in the next administration is essential to prevent a conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East. The barrage of slime from McCain hides the fact that he has no strategy to resolve the standoff and prevent the coming military confrontation. A vote for John McCain is literally a vote for war with Iran.
Whichever candidate wins tomorrow will inherit a crisis of passive appeasement of Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Bush administration sought an economic stranglehold on Iran through UN sanctions but soaring energy prices wiped out any impact of the weak measures it attained at the security council. It faired no better in its attempts at political isolation, and far from halting Tehran's nuclear drive, the complete failure of the Bush administration's strategy has allowed Iran to accelerate its uranium enrichment programme bringing them much closer to a nuclear capability.
Making the task more difficult, the next president will take over during a period of dramatic political transition in the key countries in the conflict. Not only will there be a new administration in Washington, but there will also be a new government in Israel after fresh elections there in February or March and Iran has its own presidential elections in May. Throughout this period, Iranian nuclear scientists will continue to make progress on the uranium enrichment programme.
Iran is still likely several years from a nuclear weapon, but that is not the only timeline at work and there is a real urgency to change the dynamic surround their nuclear programme. As Iran's uranium enrichment has continued unabated during the Bush administration and new concerns emerge about the scope of its nuclear programme, even moderate Israeli officials are growing increasingly worried about Iran reaching a level of nuclear knowledge that is impossible to turn back. That threshold could be reached in little more than a year even though Iran would still be years from a functioning weapon. Unless the current trajectory of the crisis changes dramatically before that window closes, the Israelis may be compelled to act and fighting could spread across the entire region. Whatever one thinks about the merits of such an action, the next American president must do all that he can to prevent it.
Negotiating without preconditions is the only pathway to a breakthrough that could prevent an Israeli attack. Requiring that your adversary accede to all of your demands before negotiations can begin is simply an excuse not to negotiate. Barack Obama has pledged that he would drop the ultimatum that Iran suspend its nuclear programme before he would meet with the Iranian leader to conduct negotiations to designed to bring Iran's nuclear development to a halt. This shift would allow senior officials from both countries to engage in preparatory meetings to establish a framework for negotiations and the parameters and likelihood of any agreement. This strategy is no guarantee of success, but Obama knows that America's current strategy is an abject failure and that we need to try something different, and he is not alone.
A presidential election campaign is a terrible place to look for consensus across party lines, but that's just what has been happening among foreign and security policy experts of both parties on the question of negotiating with our adversaries. Recently, five former secretaries of state, three Republicans and two Democrats, endorsed talking with Tehran. So has the defence secretary, Robert Gates. Even the new Centcom commander General David Petraeus said last month that "you have to talk to your enemies".
The only one left out is John McCain, who bizarrely seems to think that too much presidential diplomacy caused the current impasse. Earlier in the campaign he derisively said of Obama's proposal that "many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programmes of hostile governments is to have our presidents sit down with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven't tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades". McCain's latest decent into dishonour warns that nothing less than a second holocaust could occur if Obama prevails on Tuesday.
All of McCain's incendiary charges hide the fact that, just like his secret plan to kill Osama bin Laden, he has not given any indication what he would do differently from the woefully inadequate efforts of the Bush administration to stop Iran's nuclear programme. After the catastrophe of the Bush administration, we do not have the luxury of repeating the same mistakes. Barack Obama promises the chance of averting disaster. John McCain only promises war.