By rendering its sanctions instrument blunt through overuse, Washington has dissipated its leverage against Burma, North Korea and Iran, and run out of viable options. The Obama administration, therefore, has wisely sought to open lines of communication with these countries and review policy options.

The humanitarian imperative to help free jailed Americans in North Korea, Burma and Iran provided the impetus to this political undertaking. The individuals’ dangerous exploits came as a blessing in disguise for U.S. diplomacy, presenting an opportunity to try and open the door to engagement while providing the humanitarian shield to deflect attacks by hardline critics at home.

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