Obama Can Solve the Iran Question

Analysts suggest that Iran is only one to two years away from being able to enrich the uranium needed for a nuclear bomb, and according to the most recent IAEA report Tehran remains silent over possible weaponization activities. How then does President Barack Obama address this growing crisis when he takes office in January?

By following these three general frameworks.

Pressure Works

For the duration of the Bush administration dialogue with Iran was stalled, largely due to President Bush’s unwillingness to negotiate, and his misguided insistence on equating President Mohammed Khatami’s reformist Iran with Iraq and North Korea. But the problem has been exacerbated by the reciprocal reticence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who doesn’t want to give in to U.S. calls for diplomacy as this would appear weak in the eyes of his nationalistic electorate. However, with a new man in the White House who has welcomed opening dialogue with Tehran, there appears to be hope that a solution or a compromise can be reached. Last week, the top Middle East adviser to Obama, Dennis Ross, wrote an article in Newsweek entitled “How to Stop Iran From Getting Nukes: Talk Tough With Tehran.” Ross, who served as President Bill Clinton’s envoy to the Middle East, said of Iran that “for the Obama administration there is no greater foreign policy challenge.” Excerpts from his article are quoted below:

It’s not too late to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Tehran clearly wants nukes for both defensive and offensive purposes. But it’s not clear the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would sacrifice anything to get nuclear weapons. In fact, history shows that his government responds to outside pressure, restricting its actions when it feels threatened and taking advantage when it judges it can.

In 2003, for example, after the U.S. military made short work of the Iraqi Army—something Iran hadn’t managed in eight years of war—Tehran quickly reached out to Washington, sending a proposal through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran that sought to allay U.S. concerns about Iran’s weapons program and its support for Hizbullah and Hamas. (Sadegh Kharrazi, the main drafter of the proposal, said last year that fear among the Iranian elite led to the overture.) By contrast, when the U.S. government released a National Intelligence Estimate a year ago concluding that Iran had suspended its weaponization program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly crowed that confrontation had worked and the Americans had backed down.

Build International Solidarity

International solidarity to put pressure on Iran was dealt a blow last year when the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) revealed that the Islamic Republic had abandoned its weaponization program in 2003. However the report was misleading in that it downplayed the threat of Iran weaponizing, but concluded that high-level enrichment proceeded unchecked. Many politicians breathed an all too hasty sigh of relief, but as experts agree, the enrichment process is the hardest and most time-consuming part in developing a nuclear arsenal, and the move from having highly-enriched uranium to possessing a weapons capability is not a long or technically difficult leap. This is not to mention that Iran’s enrichment process is in violation of three UN Secutiry Council resolutions and could drastically increase the risks of neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt beginning their own enrichment. Having these countries one step away from possessing nuclear weapons would be a catastrophe for the region. Iran therefore remains one of the utmost threats to the stability of the Middle East.

Ross goes on:

Iran has continued to pursue nuclear weapons because the Bush administration hasn’t applied enough pressure—or offered Iran enough rewards for reversing course. The UN sanctions adopted in the past three years primarily target Iran’s nuclear and missile industries, not the broader economy. Hitting the economy more directly would force the mullahs to make a choice. Iran has profound economic vulnerabilities: it imports 43 percent of its gas. Its oil and natural-gas industries—the government’s key source of revenue, which it uses to buy off its population—desperately require new investment and technology. Smart sanctions would force Iran’s leaders to see the high costs of not changing their behavior.

The way to achieve such pressure is to focus less on the United Nations and more on getting the Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and Saudis to cooperate. The more Washington shows it’s willing to engage Iran directly, the more these other parties, will feel comfortable ratcheting up the pressure. Europeans have also complained that if they reduce their business with Iran, the Chinese will pick up the slack. But having the Chinese onboard will allay that fear.

It’s true that having the Chinese play ball is important but Ross fails to acknowledge the Russian influence in convincing Iran to comply with international laws. True the value of Chinese trade with Iran has boomed to $25bn in 2008 and they are unlikely to agree to restricting that flow through sanctions, but it is not from Beijing that Iran takes its encouragment to defy Security Council resolutions. Rather the Russians continue to reap the benefits of playing the good cop to Tehran while the West tries desperately to manage proliferation on its own. Only recently for example Russia and Iran signed an agreement along with Qatar to form a natural ‘gas troika‘ that would see them cooperate on manipulating gas prices in their collective favor. And it is Russia that built and supplies fuel to Iran’s Bushehr reactor (see map above) in the south of the country. Furthermore, as Ross points out, the imposition of tougher economic sanctions on gas could be implemented. Indeed only five companies account for the gas exported to Iran, and they are all Western. Either by these companies’ own moral impetus or through government-led efforts, this source could be shut off, leaving Iran and its vulnerable economy to stagnate to the point that Iranians no longer see the clear benefits of pursuing such a destablizing path. The economy, after all, has been Ahmadinejad’s “Achilles heel” – its time to exploit this weakness.

Reopen Dialogue and Balance Tough Talk

These tougher sanctions, however, must be part of a two-pronged approach that affords Iran the respect and dignity it needs to effectively back down without losing too much face:

Sharp sticks, of course, must be balanced by appetizing carrots. We need to offer political, economic and security benefits to Tehran, on the condition that Iran change its behavior not just on nukes but on terrorism as well. Sticks will show Iran what it stands to lose by going nuclear; carrots will show its leaders what they would gain by moderating their behavior. Smart statecraft involves wielding them together. It’s needed now to avoid two terrible outcomes: living with a nuclear Iran, or acting militarily to try to prevent it.

We need to better understand Iranian concerns: they are rightfully worried about national security. Israel and the U.S. continue to espouse bellicose rhetoric with regards to Iran. This is not helpful. Moreover, Iran is a Shiite state in a largely Sunni region and this plays an important part in their desire for autonomy that the West sometimes fails to apprecitate. Not to mention that their population doubled in the last 20 years, and oil reserves won’t sustain their demographic forever. Nuclear energy is their right, but it needs to be developed following international norms. A UN process for the provision of enriched uranium is one option. The most obvious benefit of this is that the Iranians would receive fuel at a far cheaper price than they could ever produce it themselves, and, under IAEA inspection, it would be taken away once burned.

The recent test of a new long-range missile points to the threat that Iran still poses both to the West and to Russia, and a new approach is needed if we are to prevent them destabilizing the region, but that approach can only begin with dialogue. Obama can do this.

Neil Leslie is an assistant editor of the Atlantic Council. His views are his own. 

Image: nuclear%20iran.programthumb.jpg