Diplomats often have a hard time being frank for the entirely understandable reason that they have to talk to the same foreigners day after day. Their love of process – the elevation of means over ends – exists for the same reason. Being amicable and persevering, even in unpleasant situations, is both natural and self-serving.
It would be surprising not to see former prominent American and Canadian diplomats promote continuing dialogue with Tehran over its nuclear program. And in Washington and Ottawa, we now see folks, ex-diplomats foremost among them, asserting that sanctions against Tehran may be counterproductive because they are too tough.
Ottawa's just-enacted total ban on imports and exports to the Islamic Republic will likely provoke such criticism from Canada's foreign-policy cognoscenti. A little bit of pressure is reasonable; a lot of pressure apparently makes the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and his praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, who oversee both the nuclear program and terrorism operations overseas, unreasonable.
This disposition, of course, spills over into the discussion of human rights in Iran. A little bit of criticism is okay; too much criticism could, so the reasoning goes, dissuade Ayatollah Khamenei from cutting an atomic deal. Foreign Minister John Baird's recent speech in Toronto at the Global Dialogue on Iran's Future has provoked the kind of criticism in Canada that south of the border has been common among those who associate with former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezenski and Brent Scowcroft and the Iran-engaging former ambassador Thomas Pickering.
The "don't-be-too-mean" set have, however, one big thing working against them: history. To varying degrees, pressure has already worked with the Islamic Republic on human rights, war, and the nuclear program.
The regime doesn't like it at all when the global spotlight turns toward internal oppression. It went to surreal lengths to deny its culpability for the death of Neda Agha-Sultan, the beautiful young woman shot to death by a security thug during pro-democracy protests in 2009. Its press officials kept a close, punishing eye on Western and Iranian journalists who highlighted the torture that came with the anti-democracy crackdown. The mollahs often try to hide from foreigners the brutality in the regime's enforcement of Sharia law. Many Iranian dissidents now in exile owe their freedom, if not their lives, to Westerners who kept official and media attention on them during their incarceration.
And Iranian VIPs have themselves often written how the combined pressures of the battlefront, the threat of American military power, economic sanctions, and internal unrest cracked Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's will to continue the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). It's a compelling coincidence that according to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the weaponization of Iran's nuclear research stopped (or paused) in 2003 – the year the United States and Great Britain downed the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The principal question is whether the West can bring sufficient non-military pressure upon Ayatollah Khamenei and his guards to make them relent in their atomic quest. We are skeptical. Certainly the sanctions currently in force haven't worked. Tehran has massively increased the number and quality of its centrifuges, making an undetectable breakout capacity – the rapid processing of low- or medium-enriched uranium to weapons grade – ever closer. A decent estimate is that by mid-2014, the regime could, if centrifuge production rates remain steady, be down to no more than a two-week dash to highly-enriched uranium without fearing detection from United Nations inspectors or Western intelligence services. And that's not counting the heavy-water plutonium processing plant at Arak, which appears on track to become operational also by mid-2014.
Although sanctions are denying the regime lots of hard currency, they are still weak compared to the economic embargo that Great Britain brought against Tehran after the 1951 nationalization of Iran's oil industry (these sanctions were a major factor in turning the senior clergy and the upper and middle classes in 1953 against the once-popular but increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq). If the West were serious about using sanctions to crack the nuclear will of the regime, Iran would be already on the brink of economic collapse.
The West however has done an astonishingly good job of giving diplomacy numerous chances with Tehran. The Western Europeans have been negotiating with the Islamic Republic since they launched an engagement policy in 1992; they have been trying hard to convince Tehran – using mostly carrots, not sticks – since 2003 to relent in its nuclear aspirations, which as any British and French diplomat involved in these discussions will tell you privately, do not appear to be peaceful. The late, great French intellectual and senior official Thérèse Delpech, who closely monitored the European nuclear "dialogue" with Tehran, offered this hopeful insight in 2007 after years of failure: "Experience is a school where the lessons cost dearly, but it's the only place were even imbeciles can learn something."
Ms. Delpech, who was skeptical that almighty Americans would do any better diplomatically with the mullahs than less mighty Europeans had, may have been too optimistic.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA's Clandestine Service, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mark Dubowitz is the foundation's executive director and heads its projects on sanctions and nonproliferation.