Iran is more determined than ever to produce a nuclear weapon. But sanctions and other Western efforts are having an impact, and Tehran now claims it wants to negotiate. The U.S. and Europe should expose this stalling tactic for the sham that it is. And the West’s policy on Burma provides the perfect paradigm for doing so.
For decades, the regime in Burma has been as despicable as the one in Iran. The ruling junta has used violence and murder to stifle dissent, denied freedom and human rights to its people, and counted itself as an ally of North Korea and other despotic regimes.
The United States and Europe used sanctions and public diplomacy to try to effect change in Burma. We cut off non-humanitarian funds, targeted the regime with stiff sanctions, and publicly challenged the junta on its human rights abuses. For years, these efforts failed to produce any meaningful change. The junta would promise to enact reforms, only to quickly reverse course or never follow through.
But the United States and its allies weren’t deterred. The Bush and Obama administrations and bipartisan majorities in Congress progressively increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Burma. In 2010, Burma held a fraudulent election, called it reform, and asked the U.S. and other nations to ease up on sanctions. The world refused.
And then something remarkable and unexpected happened. The Burmese junta installed a “civilian government” that actually began making real and meaningful reforms. It released hundreds of political prisoners, freed Aung San Suu Kyi and allowed her to openly criticize the regime, declared a cease-fire with some ethnic groups, and set in motion elections that might be free and fair. Senator Mitch McConnell, who has championed freedom in Burma for years, recently declared, “Burma has made more progress toward democracy in the past six months than it has in decades.”
In response to these real reforms, the U.S. and its allies have offered real rewards. Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. would restore full relations with Burma. The French foreign minister recently visited Burma (the first visit by a high-ranking French official in nearly 25 years) and announced an increase in aid. And the U.S. and Europe have promised to ease and lift sanctions if Burma continues on the path to a free and open society.
The West stood united in Burma and refused to give an inch until the junta made concrete reforms. If sanctions have any chance of working in Iran, the U.S. and Europe must adhere to the same policy.
The West must refuse to sit at the bargaining table until Iran takes real action to curtail its nuclear program. If Iran fails to meet this test (as it most surely will), Iran’s offer to negotiate will be exposed for the fraud it is.
The Iranians have constantly dangled the prospect of talks to divide the West and buy more time to develop their nuclear program. This latest offer for negotiations might appeal to White House and E.U. officials who want to avoid confrontation at any cost. But playing the fool to the mullahs in Iran won’t solve the problem or make it go away.
By demanding real reforms before negotiating, the West can expose Iran’s stalling tactics and continue to apply pressure via sanctions and covert actions. It’s unlikely that these actions alone will stop Iran’s nuclear program. But the U.S. and Europe currently have the momentum. If we fall into Iran’s negotiations ploy, we will lose it.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University. His personal website is DavidRossMeyers.com.