Why Iran Blinked

MADRID – At first glance, the entire greater Middle East appears to be sliding into chaos. Civil war continues to rage in Syria, while its neighbors – particularly Jordan and ever-fragile Lebanon – strain under the weight of more than two million refugees. Libya has largely descended into tribal anarchy, and a weak Afghan regime is bracing itself for NATO’s withdrawal in 2014. Egypt’s military-backed government has extended the state of emergency, and Iraq is witnessing a surge in sectarian violence, with more than 5,000 civilians killed and almost 14,000 wounded so far this year.

And yet there is an exception to this pattern where one would perhaps least expect it. For decades, Iran has cast a menacing shadow of confrontation over the Middle East; now the Islamic Republic appears eager to end the showdown with the West over its nuclear program.

This shift – and Iran’s surprising role as an outlier of hope in a region of disorder – invites reflection on America’s global leadership and what the United States can achieve when it uses multilateralism (and transatlanticism in particular) to its full potential. At a time when the US often projects an image of indecision and weakness – reflected in the unfortunate slogan “leading from behind” – Iran exemplifies the potential of an international response with the US leading from the front.

The US has maintained a broad sanctions regime against Iran since the mid-1990’s, and has enforced it vigorously – imposing $1.9 billion in penalties on the bank HSBC last year, for example, and blacklisting entities that help Iran evade financial restrictions. But it was only with growing participation by a wide range of countries that the sanctions really began to bite.