Commentary Magazine


The Futile Engagement-Pressure-Containment-Engagement Loop

At yesterday’s State Department news conference, Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was asked about President Obama’s statement that UN sanctions on Iran could occur “within weeks.” Toner confirmed there is not yet a draft resolution and cautioned that Obama had “noted that we don’t have international consensus yet.” But as we enter the fourth month after Iran ignored the last of the president’s deadlines, a conference call to pursue lowest-common-denominator sanctions “shows how serious we are.” Toner continued:

What we do have is broad support among the P-5+1 for a dual-track approach. The President was quite clear yesterday in saying that we’ve tried the engagement track and we’re now moving towards the pressure track. The engagement part of it is not off the table, but we’re moving with deliberation on the pressure track now. And we’re consulting, and the P-5+1 call within that context just shows how serious we are.

Haaretz describes the conference call Toner referenced, in which the U.S., Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and China reportedly agreed to begin drafting a UN resolution. “While the agreement seems to be an achievement for the Obama administration, China will agree only to relatively weak sanctions, [Reuters] quoted diplomats as saying.”

The sanctions – which the administration was supposedly working on all last year to prepare for the possibility that engagement might not succeed — will not be crippling; they will “bite” only around Iran’s ankles; and it is unclear, in Sarah Palin’s phrase, whether they will even “nibble.” But after they fail, we will move to containment, and then we will be in the same situation we currently face with North Korea — which Toner also described yesterday:

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton said yesterday at the joint press briefing with G-8 foreign ministers that North Korea already has nuclear weapons. So isn’t [the] new U.S. Government position to acknowledge North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons?

MR. TONER: On North Korea, I would just say that we remain steadfastly committed to getting the Six-Party Talks going again. North Korea knows what it has to do and we’re trying to get them back to the negotiating table.

QUESTION: Yeah, but how about the fact that they already have nuclear weapons? That’s what she mentioned yesterday.

MR. TONER: We’re still – our goal remains the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s what we’re trying to achieve through the Six-Party process. So we just urge North Korea to get back to the negotiating table.

Watching U.S. diplomacy with North Korea, Iran can feel some confidence about what will happen if it completes its nuclear-weapons program: undoubtedly, we will still be steadfastly committed to getting talks with Iran going again; we will state that Iran knows what it has to do (let us process their nuclear fuel for them while we talk); we will repeat that our goal remains the denuclearization of the Middle East; and we will urge Iran to return to the negotiating table.

The engagement strategy is a unique contribution to American diplomacy: it is used only on adversaries (allies get less courteous treatment); it is never off the table; it remains there while other options are pursued; it will still be there when they fail; and it will continue even after it is overtaken by events. The Haaretz report ends with a small vignette indicating engagement may be somewhat harder later on:

When a senior representative from Pyongyang was asked in Moscow last month at an international conference on nuclear proliferation what assurances his country needed for its security, he said: “We do not have to talk. We have nuclear weapons.”