Above the Fray: The US and Iran at a pivotal crossroad

The Obama administration must choose a new strategy from a set of imperfect options.

November 19, 2010 12:24
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, at UNGA

Ahmadinejad Salutes 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Two years into the Obama administration, the US has made important progress in tightening sanctions against the Iranian regime, but more must be done to alter its nuclear ambitions. Despite the new sanctions, Iran has continued to gain influence in Iraq and Afghanistan and stir unrest in Lebanon, strengthening its armed forces while advancing its uranium enrichment efforts.

Today, it is unlikely that Iran views the US, preoccupied with withdrawing from the region and addressing its languishing economy, as a genuine threat to its nuclear aspirations. The US must establish a successful Iran policy that underlines the importance of international engagement efforts, while outlining clear consequences for Iran’s continued defiance.

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Although the new set of sanctions is hurting the Iranian economy, it is far from crippling. Despite new sanctions targeting the energy sector – including harsh financial controls on new investments – Iran is still able to sell considerable amounts of oil, most notably to China, Turkey and India.

Even as sanctions force Iran to make unpopular cuts in oil and other subsidies, which could potentially stir unrest, it has shown its ruthlessness in quelling domestic dissension. The violent measures taken during the domestic upheaval surrounding the disputed presidential elections in May 2009 illustrated that the government will not easily change course and will do whatever it takes to keep its grip on power.

As Iran works to limit the impact of international sanctions, it is preparing for the possibility of a military confrontation while working to undermine US interests across the region. Although there is in place an effective ban on arms sales to Iran, Teheran has undertaken to modernize its military force, including upgrading its domestic weapons systems, such as its surface-to-air missiles, in an attempt to build a modicum of deterrence capability in the event that Israel or the United States decide to attack its nuclear plants.

Iran is most interested in keeping the US occupied in regional conflicts to gain more time to further advance its nuclear program while inhibiting the Obama administration from threatening it militarily. Indeed, it knows that the American public is sickened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and would not support a third war in the Middle East, unless the US is facing an imminent threat. Precisely to avoid even the perception of imminent threat, Iran has no intention to openly provoke the US.

Without a credible threat of military action – and with successful efforts to limit the impact of new sanctions – Iran has also grown accustomed to the US talking tough, but doing little. The recent WikiLeaks documents have illustrated that Iranian forces have played a considerable role in stirring violence in Iraq – even battling US forces directly – without a meaningful US response. This illustrates that the “talk tough, do little” approach has been in place for successive White House administrations, though the situation is clearly direr today. Regardless of the Obama administration’s determination, foreign and domestic constraints are keeping the US from advancing the military threat, and its credibility is significantly diminished.

Recognizing this, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu enhanced his rhetoric in support of a military strike during his recent visit to the US. Thereby, he stoked fears that should the US not take action, Israel could heighten matters with a strike of its own.

THE OBAMA administration must unfortunately choose a new strategy among a set of imperfect and unpleasant options. Indeed none of these options, in and of itself, would necessarily resolve Iran’s nuclear impasse, but the cumulative impact of some elements of these options could force Iran to change course.

First, there are those who suggest that the US could allow Iran to maintain a nuclear enrichment program under a strict monitoring system structured with the support of the international community. This option recognizes that maintaining a nuclear program on its soil is a source of national pride and will remain such regardless of who is in power. It, however, assumes that Iran has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons, and that it is better to enable it to have a nuclear program under strict observation than to continue dangerous gamesmanship while indicating that the US is not interested in regime change.

Those who support this option invoke what President Barack Obama stated in Cairo when he said that “any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it.”

However, Iran has shown no willingness to open up to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The new Republican-led Congress will not likely support such a move. And without a doubt, Israel would vehemently reject this idea, as it is convinced that Iran is pursuing a nuclear arsenal and cannot be trusted to abandon its weapons program. The question is whether Obama will be able to persuade all sides that this is in fact a workable formula.

Second, other circles suggest the US could heed Netanyahu’s call to enhance the credibility of the military option. The US should begin to prepare contingency plans, and could undertake regular joint military maneuvers with Israel and separately with other Gulf states, which would signal to Iran the seriousness of the military option.

Third, the US could consider small-scale retaliations against some Iranian assets that are working to undermine its interests, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq. This argument suggests that without signaling to Iran that it cannot attack US interests with impunity, its bad behavior will only intensify. It is questionable that the Obama administration is prepared to go this route.

Fourth, those who favor continued negotiations agree that when the negotiations resume, the US should give them a limited time frame – perhaps no more than four months. The Iranians must know they cannot play for time anymore. The US should utilize Turkey as a direct interlocutor and work to rebuild trust with it regarding negotiations with Iran. The nuclear swap deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil did not go as far as the P5+1 and especially the US expected, and Turkey’s subsequent opposition to sanctions at the UN has left US-Turkey ties further frayed.

Finally, there are those who counsel patience. They argue that Iran is experiencing many difficulties and its nuclear program is advancing far more slowly than what was previously thought. They suggest that its efforts have been impeded by a combination of elements, including foreign sabotage of its nuclear computer programs, inability to import nuclear technology, a restive public resulting from the post-election political crisis, international pressure and internal discord between the various centers of power about the overall direction the country is heading.

FOR THESE reasons, I join those who counsel patience provided that the Obama administration continues to focus on making the sanctions increasingly more effective, indeed crippling. In addition, the US should steadily increase external and internal pressure by helping the Green Movement and other groups like the Arabs, Kurds and Baluch, while refraining from engaging Iran in negotiation.

This option may well be worth testing, provided the US fully coordinates its strategy with Israel. If the Obama administration does not demonstrate that it has every intention of stopping Iran by any means – including the military option – and if Israel concludes that Iran is about to reach a breakout capacity, it is likely to act with or without American consent.

Obama should not make the mistake of taking Netanyahu’s government or any other government for granted. No defense cabinet would put party politics above national security. Whether Likud, Labor, Kadima or others are involved, they share the same sentiments regarding national security, especially with respect to the Iranian threat.

If the Obama administration is serious about keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it must demonstrate it by incorporating certain elements of the various options outlined. Nevertheless, the road ahead will be difficult and treacherous. Iran believes the US is not willing to traverse that path. Convincing it of the contrary will be essential to diminish the likelihood of the military option while keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Islamic Republic.

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