In the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings of September 11, 2001 (“9/11”), the American psyche has been inordinately consumed with the notion of terror and global jihad against Western culture. Even before these dramatic events, though, our unique sense of humor has traditionally emboldened us to enjoy a good scare. When terror strikes in the real world, then, we are readily at attention. Increasingly since the advent of the television, this aspect of our collective psychology has been commoditized by Hollywood and politicized at election time. The fact that Halloween traditionally falls less than a week before Election Day might also contribute to our feelings of vulnerability – and hostility to perceived national security threats – when visiting the voting booth.
In this context, one pointed criticism of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign aimed at its stated choice to engage Iran directly and to meet Iran’s president without preconditions. After 9/11, American public opinion understandably disfavored talk of negotiating with perceived enemies of the state. Diplomatic engagement with Iran was a hard sell and thus it became politically advantageous to appear tough with Tehran, especially with the harrowing events of the Iran Hostage Crisis in the not-so-distant past. The ultimate question, though, of how the world’s only remaining superpower – the United States – may legitimately question Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology in accordance with international law must not be affected by changing political winds or by a Hollywood director’s choice of anti-American depictions. In fact, one – if not the – fundamental rationale for establishing precepts is to avoid ambiguity that might arise when a course of conduct becomes expedient.
Thus, we turn to basic principles of international law governing how to deal with “rogue” states as well as to U.S.-Iranian diplomatic history. The nature of American diplomacy dictates that the unique brand of respect in negotiations that Iran demands are unlikely to be forthcoming from the United States because it would be seen as “soft” on a state sponsor of terrorism. Rather, the Obama Administration’s history of interactions with Arab Spring states foretells that a continued stalemate is more likely in the making. As President Obama’s first term was marked with general adherence to international law, it would first attempt to act within the collective action mechanism of the Security Council but would fail due to China’s and Russia’s backing of Iran. In effect, America would have to violate international law’s limits on the use of force if it wished to maintain respect in the world theatre vis-à-vis Iran. In turn, Iran is unable to abandon one of its most vital national security interests and would not in any case be able to conclusively prove an absence of uranium enrichment. Nonetheless, several alternatives to the current stalemate are available if the parties are genuinely interested in advancing the dialogue.
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