WASHINGTON — Throughout 2010, the pattern for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program held to form. With just about every diplomatic effort failing to yield results, international efforts had increasingly given way to discussions about sanctions — and what mix of them would be needed to bring Iran to heel. In 2011, a renewed focus on comprehensive economic sanctions could turn out to be the bad idea whose time has arrived.

Sanctions, of course, have a dismal historical record in achieving their aims. Indeed, they have often been more useful in proving the law of unintended consequences. So it might be useful to step back and take one more look at our disagreeable negotiating partner — Iran — to see what should, and should not, be emphasized diplomatically.

There is nothing easy about negotiating with Iran. It is one of the oldest states in the broader Middle East, with a deep culture. Despite its leaders’ grim public image, Iran has a sense of humanism, as any Kurd who fled from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s chemical-warfare attacks along the Iranian border can attest. Bending, much less breaking, will not come naturally to such a prideful country.

Iran also doesn’t “play well with others.” Most Americans remember it as the country that abducted U.S. diplomats soon after its Islamic revolution in 1979, holding them for no apparent purpose for 444 days. No American diplomat has been stationed in Tehran since. American attitudes toward Iran are probably far more conditioned by that episode than people realize.

Iran is also internally divided. Its mullahs bicker constantly, seeming to reflect the country’s broader cleavages. Iran’s civilian authorities apparently have limited control over the military and the dreaded security services, which seem to answer to no one but themselves.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution, moreover, has run into a familiar contradiction: it cannot further its aims without accepting Westernization and modernization. Iran’s youthful population — a product of the massive postrevolution baby boom — is increasingly frustrated and depressed; not surprisingly, young Iranians are having fewer children than ever. As the June 2009 election protests showed, Iran’s urban youth desperately want to end the country’s isolation, but they have increasingly found that the only way out of isolation is to study or work abroad — and never return.

Iran does not live in a great neighborhood, either. Turkey can be a good neighbor, but otherwise Iran is bordered by inhospitable states to the east and the north. And, while its western neighbor Iraq is a fellow Shiite-majority state, Iraq’s Arab Shiites make no secret of their distaste for the Persians and their claim to Shiites prominence. While most of the world may have missed it, there is an ongoing competition between Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom over which city is holier.

Iran has virtually no friends among the Sunni Arab states. As the world learned from the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables, Sunni Arab leaders are no more tolerant of an Iranian nuclear bomb than is the U.S. or its allies. The Sunni reaction to Iran may reflect deep suspicions about the Shiite (witness the cold shoulder given by most Sunnis to Shiite rule in Iraq). Iran’s only friends, it seems, are those — like the Chinese — who are more interested in its natural resources than its people.

While sanctions may deepen Iran’s predicament, they are unlikely to break the diplomatic impasse on nuclear weapons. But, given the Iranian government’s increasingly unhelpful reactions to diplomatic overtures, there is unlikely to be any interest in toning down sanctions. Indeed, just the opposite response is likely — efforts to tighten sanctions still further.

Yet, just as the U.S. adopted a “bomb and talk” approach with the Serbs during the denouement of the Bosnian war, America must be willing to “sanction and talk” when it comes to Iran, thereby creating greater space for an eventual diplomatic strategy.

First, the U.S. should consider establishing diplomatic relations with Iran and putting diplomats on the ground. This would not be an easy process, and could well meet considerable Iranian resistance. But the Iranians have diplomatic relations with other members of its main interlocutor in talks on its nuclear program, the sanctions-minded P-5+1 Group (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.), and restoring Iran-U.S. diplomatic ties would shorten lines of communications and close the 444-day chapter of 1979-1981.

Second, even if a stronger bilateral mechanism is forged, it should not be allowed to displace the P-5 approach. The ability of this group to work together is critical to resolving this and future crises.

Third, the U.S. should continue its efforts to encourage action by Iran’s neighbors. While Turkey’s lurch into the fray in 2010 may have been unwelcome, its interest in calming a situation involving an immediate neighbor is understandable. More problematically, the Sunni Arab states should also give more serious thought to addressing the situation, and should seek to reconcile their private and public postures.

Iran, after all, is not building an Islamic bomb. It is building an Iranian bomb, or, worse yet, a Shiite bomb that Arab leaders must be more resolute in trying to stop. Private expressions of deep concern do not compensate for public nonchalance (or changing the topic to Israel), and are hardly a basis for a successful policy toward a country whose nuclear ambitions could have a catastrophic impact on the region.

Finally, the Chinese and the Russians have been brought along principally by the U.S. to a more robust policy, yet they remain reluctant. They need to convey through their own bilateral approaches to Iran a sense of urgency — and perhaps even express a little anger — at Iran’s unwillingness to negotiate seriously.

Sanctions should be a tool of diplomacy, not the other way around. Even as we look to tighten sanctions on Iran in 2011, we must strengthen our efforts to establish a strong political and diplomatic track.

Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, U.S. special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords and chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005 to 2009. He is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. © 2011 Project Syndicate

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