The U.S. and Iran at a Pivotal Crossroad
Two years into the Obama administration, the United States has made important progress in tightening sanctions against the Iranian regime, but more must be done to alter Iran's 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 all while advancing its uranium enrichment efforts. Today, it is unlikely that Iran views the United States, preoccupied with withdrawing from the region and addressing its languishing economy, as a genuine threat to its nuclear aspirations. Moving forward, the United States must establish a successful Iran policy that underlines the importance of international engagement efforts while at the same time outlines clear consequences for Iran's continued defiance.
Although the new set of sanctions is hurting the Iranian economy, it is far from crippling, as Tehran continues to weather much of the pressure. Despite new sanctions targeting the energy sector-including harsh financial control on new investments-Iran is still able to sell considerable amounts of oil to nations in demand, 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 by the Iranian Basij during the domestic upheaval surrounding the disputed Presidential elections in May of 2009 illustrated that the Iranian government will not easily change course and will do whatever it takes to keep its grip on power. Moreover, although the Iranian clergy is fully aware of the benefits it may derive by ending its international isolation, it is too ideologically committed and consumed by internal rivalries to seek a way out to rejoin the community of nations. For that reason -however severe-the sanctions are not likely to force Iran's hand, unless they are supplanted by other measures the U.S. must be prepared to take.
As Iran works to limit the impact of international sanctions, it is preparing for the possibility of a military confrontation while working to undermine U.S. interests across the region. Although there is in place an effective ban on arms sales to Iran, Tehran has undergone significant efforts to modernize its military force, including upgrading its own 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. At the same time, Iran continues to meddle in both Iraq and Afghanistan, reportedly equipping and training Taliban insurgents, while at the same time providing financial aid to Afghanistan's embattled President Hamid Karzai to maintain its sway on the governing authority. The implications should be clear: for now, Iran is most interested in keeping the United States occupied in regional conflicts to gain more time to further advance its nuclear program while inhibiting the Obama administration from threatening Teheran militarily. Indeed, Iran 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 U.S. is facing an imminent and unmitigated threat. Thus, precisely to avoid even the perception of imminent threat, Iran has no intention to openly provoke the United States. From Teheran's perspective, the longer the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better.
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 United States talking tough, but doing little. The recent "Wiki-leaks" documents have illustrated that Iranian forces have played a considerable role in stirring violence in Iraq-even battling U.S. forces directly-without a meaningful U.S. 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 United States from advancing the military threat, and U.S. credibility is significantly diminished. Recognizing this, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu enhanced his rhetoric in support of a military strike during his most recent visit to the United States. Thereby, he stoked fears that should the United States not take action against Iran, Israel could heighten matters with a strike of its own. Moving forward, 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 accumulative impact of some elements of these options could force Iran to change course.
First, there are those who suggest that the U.S. could allow Iran to maintain a nuclear enrichment program under a strict, unfettered monitoring system structured with the support of the international community. This option recognizes that for Iran, maintaining a nuclear program on its soil is a source of national pride and will persist as such regardless of who is in power. This scenario, however, assumes that Iran has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons, and that it is better to enable Tehran to have a nuclear program under strict observation, than to continue dangerous gamesmanship to no end while indicating that the U.S. is not interested in regime change. Those who support this option invoke what President 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 Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it." However, this option may not come to fruition for numerous reasons. Iran has shown no willingness to open up to inspections by the IAEA. The newly elected Republican-led Congress will not likely support such a move. And without a doubt, Israel would vehemently reject this idea, as Israelis are convinced that Iran is pursuing nuclear arsenals and cannot be trusted to abandon its weapons program. The question is whether Obama will be able to persuade all the sides of the conflict that this is in fact a workable formula.
Second, other circles suggest that the United States could heed Prime Minister Netanyahu's call to enhance the credibility of the military option against Iran. The U.S. 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. Iranians vehemently reject negotiations on one hand and intimidation on the other. However, because the Obama administration's credibility is in doubt, measures to show that the military option is indeed serious may be necessary. Even though this option still may not force Iran's hand as it seriously doubts American resolve, undertaking some military maneuvers and accelerating the delivery of advanced weapons to and training of our friends in the Gulf could serve to soften the Iranian resolve.
Third, the United States could consider small-scale retaliations against some Iranian assets that are working to undermine U.S. interests, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq. This argument suggests that without signaling to Iran that it cannot attack U.S. interests with impunity, their bad behavior will only intensify. The United States could attack certain Iranian military or financial assets, however only in response to clear evidence of Iran working to undermine U.S. interests and even kill U.S. forces. It is questionable that the Obama administration is prepared to go this route. Yet this is part of the problem-Iran sees no reason to negotiate in earnest if there are no consequences for its continuous provocations and defiance.
Fourth, those who favor continued negotiations agree that when the negotiations resume as expected, the U.S. should give them a limited time frame-perhaps no more than four months. The Iranians must know that it cannot play for time anymore and that the negotiation process is not open-ended. The U.S. should utilize Turkey as a direct interlocutor with the Iranians and work to rebuild trust with Turkey 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 United States expected, and Turkey's subsequent opposition to sanctions at the United Nations has left U.S.-Turkey ties further frayed. Turkey could be a valuable conduit to the Iranians in outlining the potential consequences for continued defiance of the international community. Talks between Ankara and Teheran should certainly not serve to replace the P5 + 1 negotiations, but would augment them and offer Teheran a face-saving way out of its international isolation through its relationship with Turkey. Progress in these talks could build on the previous Turkish-mediated nuclear swap arrangement by strengthening the accord to address the central concerns of the U.S. and broader international community. A central role for Turkey will likely be opposed by some in the U.S. House of Representatives who are questioning Turkey's regional shift to the east, as well as by Jerusalem, which has become deeply skeptical of Ankara's intentions since the deepened Israel-Turkey rift. However, if Turkey worked in conjunction with P5+1, it could prove successful. Turkey wants to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons as much as, if not more than, the U.S. Ankara's deep concerns emanate not only out of fear that a nuclear Iran could precipitate an arms race in the Middle East, but it could usher in a new conflagration resulting from an Israeli or American attack against Iran's nuclear facilities with its potentially terrifying consequences.
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 Tehran's efforts have been impeded by a combination of elements, including foreign sabotage of their 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 of where 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 U.S. 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-unless the United States receives a clear assurance, perhaps through Turkey, that Tehran is willing to enter into serious negotiations to reach an agreement.
This option may well be worth testing, provided the U.S. 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, Israel is likely to act with or without American consent. To be sure, when it comes to Israel's national security there are no sacred cows, and, for this reason, both nations must be on the same page. President Obama should not make the mistake of taking Netanyahu's government or any other government in Israel for granted. No defense cabinet in Israel is an ideologue group that would put party politics above national security. Whether Likud, Labor, Kadima, or others are involved, by-and-large, they share the same sentiments regarding national security, especially with respect to the Iranian threat. In any case, if Israel strikes, the U.S. will be implicated as having been complicit, a reality the White House must be prepared to address.
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 that the United States is not willing to traverse that path. Convincing Tehran of the contrary will be essential for the U.S. to diminish the likelihood of the military option-and its potentially horrific consequences-while keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Islamic Republic.
A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 11/19/2010.