Thursday, February 11, 2010

On Iran: Time for the next step

Guest post by Amir Farokhi

Amir Farokhi is an Atlanta attorney and a principal with the Truman National Security Project.

Ed. note: Today is the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. At a rally in Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran is now a "nuclear state." This past Sunday, Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed with uranium enrichment. This process would produce uranium enriched at 20 percent, well short of the 90 percent required for weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Iran's excuse is that it needs enriched uranium for its medical reactor, but it is relatively easy to move from 20 percent to 90 percent enrichment. Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, and, to be sure, Iran is still a long way off from being able to build a nuclear bomb, but there is little doubt that the Iranian regime, whatever its ultimate goal, is aggressively flaunting its new status. This may be as much for domestic as for international consumption, but it is nonetheless essential that we take the threat seriously. -- MJWS

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As Iran approaches the anniversary of its revolution, the U.S. would do well to reflect upon the changes President Obama has instituted in America's Iran policy. Characterized by a theme of "engagement," Obama sent a well-received Persian New Year's greeting to the Iranian people in 2009 and inserted U.S. diplomats alongside European counterparts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear activity. It was a good start to a new approach.

Yet this new approach, while pitch-perfect, has not visibly slowed Iran's nuclear activity. Iran has played cat-and-mouse with the West: appearing to negotiate in good faith and then pulling back, presumably to buy more time to develop its nuclear program. Indeed, this week, Iran announced it would resume nuclear enrichment at levels indicating progress toward nuclear weapons.

Iran's intransigence begs the question: "Is it time for more aggressive steps?" In short, yes. The world has given Iran multiple opportunities to act in good faith. Iran has not. To protect American interests and slow Iran's nuclear development, the time has come to add sticks to the promise of carrots. Some options, however, are better than others.

Continued engagement? Yes, on the nuclear issue. Engagement has yielded results. Several years ago, American calls for strong action on Iran were met with skepticism by Europe and rejection by Russia and China. The one-two punch of President Obama's outreach coupled with Iran's obstinancy has convinced our European allies to support sanctions. With Europe now backing sanctions, and even Russia showing frustration with Iran, the time is ripe for additional pressure. In just one year, President Obama has spurred more international consensus than his predecessor was able to muster in eight.

Impose sanctions? Yes. With Iran refusing to play ball, the next reasonable step is sanctions. To be effective, they must hit at the economic heart of the regime. Instituting tougher sanctions through the United Nations will be difficult, as China and Russia are reluctant to support harsh measures toward Iran, a major trading partner for each. Moreover, Iran has learned to operate under severe sanctions. Nevertheless, the U.S. still has an opportunity to push for effective sanctions that target Iran's gasoline imports, oil refining needs, Dubai banking connections, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Push for regime change? No. In the wake of last year's disputed presidential election, a reformist "Green" movement captured the world's attention with its defiant protests, technological creativity, and resilience. The U.S. avoided the temptation to overtly support the opposition movement, to avoid bringing additional heat on the reformers. Indeed, Iran's political protestors requested that the U.S. stay out of Iran's political drama. Given the longstanding history of Western interference in Iran's domestic affairs, this approach gives nuclear negotiators a greater chance of success.

However, there have been calls from across the political spectrum for President Obama to change course. Last month, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a pragmatic voice on foreign affairs, called on the U.S. to strengthen Iran's opposition movement in order to "deepen rifts among the rulers." Haas reasoned that because rifts within the regime are so significant, and because Iran's reformers are already labeled as pawns of the West, the U.S. should take advantage of the moment and push for change.

Yet this approach remains unlikely to succeed. First, Iran's reformists are just as committed to nuclear development as the hardliners. Second, Iran's fierce nationalism, embodied by the reformists as well, will surely reject Western efforts to promote regime change. Finally, such efforts will severely handicap future diplomacy with Iran. While the U.S. should speak up in support of human rights in Iran and condemn violence, we should not actively seek to influence Iran's domestic politics.

Military Action? No. The least attractive option remains military intervention, including targeted airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. America's military is stretched perilously thin, public support for a new war is nonexistent, and global allies are unlikely to contribute to such action. Moreover, a military strike on Iran puts American troops in the region at greater risk of attack, increases the likelihood of Iranian-sanctioned terror activity, and may mute the progress made by the reform movement. Further, there is no guarantee military action will be successful.

Yet even if the U.S. holds fire, we may be sucked into conflict if Israel unilaterally strikes Iran's nuclear facilities. This is the least desirable outcome. The better military deterrent may be to increase military technology and training in Iran's Arab neighbors, a process that the U.S. has already begun. The risk of setting off an arms race in the region, however, stands as caution.

Keep on Keeping On? Yes. Iran's domestic politics will only be resolved from within. But the Obama Administration has successfully cast Iran as the bad guy, with the U.S. playing the role of responsible global leader. This is the best shot we have at coercing Iran into acting as a responsible member of the international community. President Obama has already gotten the ball rolling. It's time to get it rolling faster.

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