Engaging Iran is the means, not the solution

The offer to negotiate must be preceded by strong economic measures and military threats.

AhMADinejad 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
AhMADinejad 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Among the plethora of proposals US President-elect Barack Obama is being offered from unofficial sources in this transition period, chances are that the joint Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations project entitled "Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President" will command a prominent place. Two chapters of this report address one of the most urgent issues Obama will have to confront: Iran's purported nuclear weapons development project. Chapter 3 of the report, entitled: "Pathway to Coexistence: A New US Policy toward Iran," contends that because of the failed US policies toward Iran spanning the past five presidents, a new approach must be applied. On the basis of past international and US activities and possible future actions, the report concludes that the only way to gain a change in Iran's attitude is to engage it in constructive dialogue. Although the report details the many practical arrangements for this possibility, the end result is in no way certain, and failure would surely end in a nuclear Iran casting its long shadow over the Middle East, Europe and the US. IN PARTICULAR, three facets of the report are to our mind distinct causes for alarm. The first relates to the time frame, and the report's conclusion that "because of technical limits, Iran appears to be two to three years away from building an enrichment facility capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium quickly enough to support a credible nuclear weapons option." On this basis, the authors maintain that the urgency of the situation is not immediate, and that the new administration has sufficient opportunity to consult with allies and formulate its diplomatic strategy. However, according to the data presented in the recent International Atomic Energy Agency reports, but for unforeseen problems, a conservative estimate is that Iran will have the first quantity of low enriched uranium (LEU) sufficient for the production of one "significant quantity" (SQ) of high enriched uranium (HEU) from which a single nuclear explosive device can be produced at around the end of 2009. Additional SQs could be produced much more quickly, since Iran is expanding its gas-centrifuge inventory continuously, and thus the LEU production rate is growing at an alarming rate. The second problem with the report is its resignation to the possibility that "US negotiators... should develop a fallback position... that permits a limited Iranian enrichment capability in exchange for rigorous safeguards." Unfortunately, safeguards in this case will be mainly accounting accumulated quantities of LEU that will remain on Iranian soil with the potential to be used whenever Iran decides to produce several SQs in one fell swoop. In addition, this would give Iran access to advanced gas-centrifuge enrichment technology that it could test and then use in clandestine facilities to produce its concealed supply of HEU. But the most serious deficiency of the report - and indeed of much of the current debate on the question of possible US-Iranian negotiations - is the lack of sufficient attention to Iran itself. With so much energy devoted to the question of whether and how the US should negotiate with Iran, the question of whether Iran will be serious in negotiating with the US tends to get pushed to the sidelines. In fact, this question is critical. IRAN HAS demonstrated that it uses negotiations to play for time. Even if Iran is ultimately interested in a negotiated deal with the West, it knows that the further it advances its program, the better its bargaining position in such a negotiation will be. Therefore, Iran's rational choice in the current situation would be to continue to play for time until it has gained the upper hand in its nuclear program, i.e. when it has produced enough LEU for the potential production of a few nuclear explosive devices. As such, the major challenge at the present time is to focus the thinking of Iranian decision-makers, and to convince them to start negotiating seriously with the US. For this, massive pressure on Iran is necessary - economic pressure, political pressure and the credible threat of military force. Without such pressure, it is difficult to see why Iran's leaders would believe it to be in their interest to enter serious negotiations at this stage. Iran cannot be allowed to gain the precious time it needs to arrive at a potential that would increase its bargaining position multifold. The offer to negotiate must be there, but it must be preceded by strong economic measures and military threats to impress upon Iran that serious engagement with the US at the present time is better than biding its time and advancing its program. As for the West, if it is really serious about negotiations, it has no time for anything less than an immediately serious and focused partner on the other side. The writers are senior research associates at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).