Breakout, breakthrough and leverage

Only if the survival of the regime were endangered would Teheran consider reversing its quest for nukes.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei iran 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei iran 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Following the Obama-Netanyahu summit, US President Barack Obama stated that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would not only be a threat to Israel and a threat to the United States, but would be profoundly destabilizing in the international community as a whole and could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would be extraordinarily dangerous for all concerned, including for Iran. According to a February 2009 International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran had produced 1,010 kg. of low enriched uranium hexafluoride, enough gas that if enriched to weapons grade, could fuel one nuclear weapon. So, Iran has already reached "breakout" capability. Although diversion of its low enriched uranium stocks for further enrichment should be detected by the IAEA, Teheran continues to produce additional low enriched uranium. If the Iranian regime makes a strategic commitment to enrich to higher levels before there is a diplomatic breakthrough, it would leave Israel with little choice but to consider when, not whether, to attack its nuclear weapons facilities. Given the history of negotiating with Teheran it is highly unlikely that a breakthrough will occur before the end of the year. In a May 17 press conference with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Obama was careful to point out that talks with Iran regarding its nuclear program would not be subject to "an artificial deadline," but he also said, "We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there's a good-faith effort to resolve differences," at which point the US would consider a "range of steps" if negotiations failed. Netanyahu interpreted the president's "range of steps" to imply that he is "leaving all options on the table," presumably including military options. At issue is whether the plan to reach out to Iran coupled with the ambiguous threat of a "range of steps," if the negotiating track fails, provides sufficient leverage to coerce Iran to cease its quest for the bomb. Devoting nine months, during which Iran will continue enriching without sufficient leverage to produce a diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely to ensure compliance. But Obama has other options that he has yet to employ. ONE POINT of leverage would be to reach out to the Iranian opposition as Washington reaches out to Teheran. According to research of the Iran Policy Committee, the Iranian regime pays attention to the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), the main opposition group, 350 percent more than all other opposition groups combined. Only if the survival of the regime were placed on the table by reaching out to its main opposition is it conceivable that Teheran would consider reversing its quest for nuclear arms status. The US could take an escalating series of steps to reach out to the Iranian opposition and thereby ratchet up pressure as negotiations unfold. A first step could be for Washington to indicate that it is considering removal of the MEK from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Doing so would bring US policy in line with the European Union, which removed the MEK from its terrorist list in January. A second step would be to hold congressional hearings on use of the MEK to increase pressure on Teheran, including removal of the group from the list. A third step would be for US officials to meet with MEK representatives in Iraq, where the group is based, and invite MEK leadership to Washington for talks. Using the Iranian opposition as a point of diplomatic leverage does not imply that Washington would arm, train or finance that opposition as it did when it created an opposition to Saddam Hussein. The worst approach would be to sell out the opposition as a part of a "grand bargain" with the Iranian regime. Such an approach has been ineffective in the past. The US made several concessions to the Iranian regime during 2003 to entice it not to interfere in Iraq after the US invasion. Such incentives did not stop Teheran from infiltrating roadside bombs, which have been the leading cause of coalition casualties. As Obama said, "We're not going to have talks forever." The US has one last chance at diplomacy before resorting to increased sanctions that are unlikely to work and the unappealing option of military strikes. To avoid such an outcome, it is crucial that it make use of every point of leverage available, of which there are very few. The Iranian opposition is one such point of leverage that has yet to be exploited. The writer is visiting professor at Georgetown University, president of the Iran Policy Committee, a former member of the National Security Council staff and personal representative of the secretary of defense in the Reagan-Bush administration.