Iran: The NIE explained?/ Rules of Engagement
Dec 18, 2008
December 18, 2008
Number 12/08 #05
Iran policy contains to be the focus of much debate as the Obama Administration in the US begins to take shape. This Update features some important new contributions to that debate.
First up is the most interesting and plausible explanation we have yet seen published for the US 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (while explaining in a footnote that this meant only bomb design work, not uranium enrichment, the most crucial element of building nuclear weaponry). Investigative journalist and author Edward Jay Epstein offers some details of the evidence that he believes led the intelligence agencies to come to this conclusion. But more importantly, he also discusses considerable evidence that the project in question, Project 1-11, was indeed shut down, but only because Iran had already obtained, via Pakistan and Russia, all the knowledge it needed to successfully build a bomb once it had sufficient fissionable material. Epstein concludes that Iran is essentially in a position to build one nuclear weapon right now. To read his full argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Dr. Ephraim Asculai and Dr. Emily Landau, top Israeli academic experts on proliferation from Tel Aviv University, take issue with the advice on Iran policy in a recent report from the Brookings Institute. They say the institute is too blasé about the urgency of the issue and advises a dangerous fall-back position for the US – agreeing to allow well-inspected enrichment in Iran, which would allow Iran to quickly create a nuclear weapons capability at any time – but are particularly critical of the report’s lack of attention to Iran’s behaviour and the problem of getting Iran to negotiate seriously. They argue that if there is not “massive pressure” placed on Iran first, any negotiations will simply be used by Teheran to play for time while it completes its nuclear program. For the rest of what they have to say, CLICK HERE.
Finally, American analysts James Phillips and Peter Brookes of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation have written a longer analysis of the policy challenges posed by Iran for President-elect Obama, with similar (but more detailed) prescriptions to those offered by Asculai and Landau. Phillips and Brookes also strongly urge the “strongest possible targeted economic sanctions” prior to negotiations, argue that diplomatic “carrots” are unlikely to have much effect, say attempting to work through the UN will not succeed and waste valuable time, and call for public diplomacy. They also explain that it is important to keep in mind that Iran’s clerical leadership is not primarily motivated by Iran’s material “interests” but by “maintaining a brutal grip on power and spreading Islamist revolution.” For this complete paper, CLICK HERE. More background on what has been attempted so far to deal with Iran’s nuclear program comes in the form of this fact sheet.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Others also urge caution before rushing into negotiations with Iran: Iranian-American academic Hussein Askari argues that low oil prices and Teheran’s bad economic policies will put the regime under pressure in coming months, so the US should wait for this pressure to bite, while journalist and author Geneive Abdo says the US should wait to “engage” directly until after the Iranian Presidential election in June to avoid strengthening Ahmadinejad.
- However, Iranian exile journalist and editor Amir Taheri reviews past efforts at engagement with Iran, and the Iranian statements about them, and concludes that it’s a “forlorn hope” to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis via diplomacy. However, the Israeli daily Haaretz urges giving an approach to Iran based on engagement a chance.
- Israel is concerned about reports that Iran is planning to triple its long-range missile arsenal and is also building an additional longer range missile.
- Some criticism of ongoing extensive trading with Iran by German firms from Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, and the Wall Street Journal. Plus, new sanctions moves by the US, targeting an Iranian bank.
- Iranian diplomats distribute antisemitic books at a European book fair and then accuse Jews of having too much power when they protest.
- Internally, Iran is apparently continuing a trend of outing supposed “networks of Israeli spies” and executing them.
- A report that Iran has moved troops and missiles to Eritrea, as part of a deal over an oil refinery there. Plus, an article alleging a general program by Iran to set up bases in strategic points around the world.
- An interesting additional piece on the aftermath of the SOFA agreement in Iraq from Eli Lake, arguing that US troops and other entanglements with Iraq are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
- The head of the UN General Assembly, who recently demanded boycotts and sanctions against Israel, apparently tried to prevent Israel from speaking, in its role as rotating chair of the “Western Europe and Other Group”, during the recent session commemorating the universal declaration of human rights.
- Israel was hit by seven rockets and a mortar from Gaza on Tuesday, including one which struck the grounds of a school, as it contemplates the end of the supposed “ceasefire” with Hamas on Friday.
By Edward Jay Epstein
International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, December 10, 2008
A year has passed since the release of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. In a stunning departure from all the previous estimates dating back to 1997 under Presidents Clinton and Bush, it declared: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
It also judged, with modest confidence, that Iran had not resumed its quest for nuclear weapons. If correct, this new assessment meant that previous ones, such as the 2004 NIE that also judged with “high confidence” that Iran was expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities under the cover of a civilian energy program, were based on flawed intelligence.
But was this astonishing reversal correct?
The 2007 intelligence estimate proceeded from both a reorganization of the so-called intelligence community and a re-evaluation of information the CIA had gotten on a clandestine nuclear weapon design program code-named by Iran “Project 1-11.” Even though Project 1-11 had been in operation since 1997, the CIA did not get wind of it until 2004, when it obtained a stolen Iranian laptop that had been smuggled into Turkey. The computer’s hard drive contained thousands of pages of documents describing efforts to design a warhead that would fit in the nose cone of the Iranian Shahab 3 missile and detonate at an altitude of 600 meters (which is too high for any explosion but a nuclear one to be effective).
>From the warhead’s specifications, which included the kind of high-tension electric bridge wire used in implosion-type nuclear weapons, the CIA deduced that the payload was a nuclear bomb similar to Pakistan’s early bomb. Its conclusion that Iran was going nuclear was repeated in all the NIEs through 2006.
By 2007, however, the CIA and reorganized intelligence community re-examined the issue and doubts began to emerge. It turned out that shortly after the stolen laptop compromised Project 1-11, satellite photographs showed that buildings involved in it had been bulldozed, and conversations intercepted by the U.S. indicated that the project was being dismantled. Then a high-level defector from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, General Ali-Reza Asgari, confirmed in his CIA debriefings that Project 1-11 had been terminated in 2003.
After a long review, and “scrubbing” the evidence for signs of deception, the CIA reached its new conclusion that Iran’s 1-11 project really had ended by 2004. In the world of clandestine activities, it is hardly unexpected that a super-secret operation such as Project 1-11, once it was compromised, would be officially closed down, and the evidence seems convincing that it was shuttered.
The issue is why. One explanation is that Iran had abandoned its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Another is that Iran no longer needed Project 1-11 because Iran had solved the tricky problem of triggering a nuclear warhead through other means.
Three pieces of the puzzle uncovered by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency cast a surprising light on how Iran has advanced its capabilities independently of Project 11-1. First, there is the digital blueprint circulated by the network of A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. IAEA investigators decoding and analyzing the massive computer files of this network found that it had clandestinely provided clients with a detailed design of a nuclear warhead of the version used by first China then Pakistan.
Since the IAEA knew that Iran had been dealing with the Khan network since at least 2003, and features of that digital blueprint matched those described in the Project 11-1 documents, it was suspected that Iran acquired the digital blueprint, along with other components, from the Khan network. If so, it shortened the task of Project 1-11.
Then, in late 2007, IAEA investigators uncovered a detailed Iranian narrative, written in Farsi, that described how a Russian scientist helped the Iranians conduct experiments to help Iranian scientists solve a complex design problem: Configuring high-tension electric bridge wire to detonate at different points less than a fraction of a nanosecond apart. In an implosion-type bomb, this is crucial for properly compressing the nuclear core. As Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s chief inspector explained at a closed-door briefing in February 2008, these Russian-led experiments were “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.”
Finally, there is the Polonium 210 experiments that Iran conducted prior to 2004. Since Polonium 210 is used to initiate the chain reaction in early-generation nuclear bombs (and used in the Pakistan design), IAEA inspectors attempted up until 2008 to get access to the facility, or “box,” in which the Polonium 210 was extracted from radioactive Bismuth.
Iran insisted that the Polonium 210 was only to be used for a civilian purpose – powering batteries on an Iranian spacecraft – and turned down these requests.
Iran had no known space program, but even if the extraction process was for civilian purposes, Iran’s success with it meant that it could also produce Polonium 210 to trigger a nuclear bomb of the design furnished by the Khan network. So, even without further work by Project 1-11, it may have acquired all essential design elements for a nuclear weapon.
Design of course is only part of the equation. The other crucial part is obtaining a fissile fuel for the nuclear explosion, such as highly-enriched uranium.
In 1974, Pakistan, with the assistance of A.Q. Khan, had pioneered the path to nuclear proliferation by using centrifuges to enrich gasified uranium into weapon-grade uranium. In this process, the uranium cascades from one rapidly-spinning centrifuge to the next, each gradually increasing the proportion of the fissile isotope Uranium 235, until it becomes first low-enriched uranium for power plants, then, if continued, high-enriched uranium, for weapons. Iran built a similar facility in the massive underground caves at Natanz, able to house up to 50,000 centrifuges, which became operational in 2002.
Iran claimed this facility was intended for the production of low-enriched uranium for the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr to generate electric power (a facility Russia had agreed to fully supply as long as it operated). But the plant also could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
According to the IAEA, which monitors Natanz, by 2008 Iran had 3,800 centrifuges in operation and is adding another 3,000. It has also upgraded many of the older centrifuges, giving it about quadruple the capacity it had in 2003. To date, it has produced and stockpiled 1,380 pounds of low-enriched uranium, which is enough, if further enriched to weapons grade, to build a nuclear bomb.
The 2007 NIE deftly ducked this escalation with a footnote stating it was excluding from its assessment “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment,” which meant Natanz. However, in light of all the developments in the past year, America’s new president will have to confront the reality that Iran now has the capability to change the balance of power in the Gulf, if it so elects to do so, by building a nuclear weapon.
Edward Jay Epstein is an investigative writer and the author of 13 books, including “Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and CIA.” He is currently writing a book on the 9/11 Commission.
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EPHRAIM ASCULAI and EMILY LANDAU
THE JERUSALEM POST, Dec. 9, 2008
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) at Tel Aviv University.
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by James Phillips and Peter Brookes
Heritage Foundation Special Report #28
December 3, 2008
We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. And so it’s unacceptable. And I will do everything that’s required to prevent it. And we will never take military options off the table.
–Barack Obama, Second Presidential Debate
President-elect Obama, you are right that the United States cannot allow Iran to attain a nuclear weapon. Your statement during the second presidential debate indicates that you appreciate the unacceptable dangers posed by a nuclear-capable Iran. But statements like the following indicate a lack of understanding about the past record of failed attempts to negotiate with Iran:
Question: [W]ould you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?…
Obama: I would.
Your Administration must learn from the experience of previous Administrations and European governments that have sought negotiations with Iran. The diplomatic path is not promising. Iran has strongly resisted international efforts to pressure it to abide by its legal commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and halt its suspect nuclear activities. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defiantly proclaimed last year that “Iran has obtained the technology to produce nuclear fuel, and Iran’s move is like a train…which has no brake and no reverse gear.”
The diplomatic route would be more promising if the regime in Tehran was motivated primarily by a desire to advance Iran’s national interests and promote the welfare of its people, but Iran’s revolutionary Islamist regime is more interested in maintaining a brutal grip on power and spreading Islamist revolution. Ahmadinejad rose through the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was created after Iran’s 1979 revolution to defend and promote Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical vision of revolutionary Shia Islam, and is committed to returning to the ideological purity of the revolution’s early years.
But we must be careful not to personalize the problem. Iran’s nuclear program began under President Rafsanjani and flourished under President Khatami. Both were considered “moderates,” extolled by some observers as leaders with whom the West could do business, but both also practiced diplomacy by taqiyyah, which is a religiously sanctioned form of dissimulation or duplicity.
If you sat down with President Ahmadinejad without preconditions, as you said you would, you would hand him an opportunity to practice his own taqiyyah, strut on the world stage, lecture you about the supposed superiority of Iran’s Islamic system, and assert Iran’s claim to leadership of the Muslim world. Such a meeting would dishearten Iran’s repressed opposition, strengthen Ahmadinejad’s hard-liners at the expense of reformist groups, give Ahmadinejad a boost in popularity that could greatly improve his chances of being re-elected if the meeting occurred before Iran’s June elections, and allow him to go through the motions of a diplomatic dialogue to defuse international pressure while Iran continues its nuclear efforts.
Your nominee as Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), rejected meeting with Ahmadinejad without preconditions, saying during the July 2007 YouTube debate that “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes.” The next day, she blasted your willingness to sit down with Iran’s president: “I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naïve.” You should take the advice of your nominee and rethink your position on meeting with Iran’s leader.
The U.S. should mobilize an international coalition to raise the diplomatic, economic, domestic political, and potential military costs to Tehran of continuing to flout its obligations under its nuclear safeguards agreements. This coalition should seek to isolate the regime, weaken it through targeted economic sanctions, explain to the Iranian people why their government’s nuclear policies will impose economic costs and military risks on them, contain and deter Iran’s military power, and encourage democratic change.
To drive home your point that an Iranian nuclear weapon is “unacceptable,” you should craft an Iran policy that includes the following important elements:
Recognize that the U.N. is a diplomatic dead end that will continue to do too little, too late to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.
If strong, concerted international action had been taken five years ago, shortly after Iran’s concealment of its uranium enrichment activities was revealed, the rising economic and international costs of its nuclear defiance might have led Tehran to reconsider its drive for nuclear weapons, but such action is less likely now than ever before. Given Moscow’s increasingly confrontational behavior and threats to retaliate for international criticism of its invasion of Georgia, the Security Council is sure to remain ineffective in addressing the Iranian nuclear issue because of the threat of a Russian veto. Moreover, Russia is upgrading its ties with Iran. On September 18, Russia announced plans to sell more military equipment to Iran, including new anti-aircraft missiles that Iran could deploy to protect its illicit nuclear weapons program.
Recognize that attempts to negotiate a diplomatic deal with Iran represent the triumph of wishful thinking over past experience.
Iran engaged in a half-hearted charade of negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany–the EU-3–in which it temporarily froze its uranium enrichment efforts, only to resume such dangerous activities after Ahmadinejad was installed in power in 2005 and the perceived threat of a possible U.S. military strike diminished. Tehran perceived that the international situation had shifted in its favor. The U.S. faced deteriorating security conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because of Iranian meddling; oil prices surged, insulating Iran from the threat of sanctions; and Iran cultivated Russia and China to fend off effective sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
Despite this, there are continuing calls for further attempts to reach a “grand bargain” in which Iran would pledge to abandon its nuclear efforts and support for terrorism in exchange for various economic carrots and security guarantees. However, the prospects for such a grand bargain are grossly overstated and ignore the past history of U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach an accommodation with Iran, which exploited and sabotaged U.S. efforts at engagement during the Carter, Reagan, and Clinton Administrations.
Hopeful talk about a new effort at rapprochement represents the triumph of wishful thinking over disappointing experience. The simple truth is that Iranian hard-liners do not want genuinely improved relations with the United States. Not only do they see the U.S. as the “Great Satan,” but they fear the temptations that the “Great Satan” can offer. They know that two previous Iranian revolutions were aborted by the defection of Westernized elites, and they fear that better relations with the U.S. will pose a growing threat to their hold on power. Moreover, making the hard compromises that would be necessary to open the door to improved relations would undermine the legitimacy of their revolutionary ideology and weaken their claim to leadership of the Muslim world.
Tehran may go through the motions of a diplomatic dialogue, as it often has in the past, to deflect pressure for more international sanctions and temporarily defuse the nuclear standoff. But a Grand Bargain strategy is likely to result in endless talks about talks that will only enable Iran to buy time to run out the clock, as it completes a nuclear weapon.
Recognize that diplomatic carrots alone won’t work because for Tehran, attaining a nuclear weapon is the biggest carrot. The EU-3 diplomatic outreach was heavily based on the offer of economic benefits, technological assistance, and improved diplomatic relations in exchange for Iran’s halting of its uranium enrichment activities, but these incentives pale in comparison with the advantages that the regime believes it will attain with a nuclear weapons capability. What is needed is greater focus on tougher disincentives for continuation of Iran’s suspect nuclear efforts, including its perceived economic, domestic political, and potential military costs. When Tehran perceives these potential costs as very high, as it did after the overthrow of regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be more likely to make concessions and freeze its uranium enrichment program. To give diplomacy a chance, the United States and its allies must credibly threaten to impose rising costs on the regime, particularly in ways that threaten its hold on power, which is its highest priority.
Opening an interest section would be in the national interest only if American diplomats received ironclad safeguards against terrorism and hostage-taking, which is not possible as long as Iran continues its efforts to support terrorism against American troops, coalition allies, and Iraqis. Your Administration must also be cognizant of the timing of any offer, which could be construed as a sign of weakness by Tehran. Making an offer before Iran’s June elections would enhance Ahmadinejad’s political prospects and should be avoided.
Lead an international coalition to impose the strongest possible targeted economic sanctions against Iran. The U.S. should try to toughen sanctions against Iran outside of the U.N. framework by working directly with its Japanese and European allies to impose the strongest possible bans on foreign investment, loans, and trade with Iran. The Achilles’ heel of Iran’s theocratic regime is its mishandling of the economy. There is growing dissatisfaction with this mismanagement and with corruption, high unemployment, and soaring inflation–officially reported at a 30 percent annual rate in September but believed to be higher. There is rising labor unrest. In October, tire factory workers demonstrated in front of the Labor Ministry to protest the failure of factories to pay six months of unpaid back wages. That same month, bazaar merchants rebelled against the imposition of a value-added tax, closing down the bazaars in many cities and forcing the regime to postpone its implementation. The bazaaris had been a cornerstone of support for the revolution against the shah.
Ayatollah Khomeini famously said, “We did not create a revolution to lower the price of melons.” But Iran’s current leaders lack the personal charisma, religious authority, and popular support needed to ignore the growing backlash against their dysfunctional economic policies, repression of human rights, and failure to meet the needs of the Iranian people. Falling oil prices will further aggravate Iran’s festering economic problems and make sanctions more painful.
An international ban on the import of Iranian oil is a non-starter. It is unrealistic to expect oil importers to stop importing Iranian oil in a tight, high-priced oil market. Instead, the focus should be on denying Iran loans, foreign investment, and favorable trade deals. The U.S. should cooperate with other countries to deny Iran loans from such international financial institutions as the World Bank and any loans for a proposed natural gas pipeline to India via Pakistan.
Although Iran is one of the world’s leading oil exporters, it must import approximately 40 percent of its gasoline needs due to mismanagement and inadequate investment in refinery infrastructure. An international ban on gasoline exports to Iran would drive up the price of Iranian gasoline and underscore the shortsightedness of the regime in the eyes of the Iranian people.
Mobilize allies to contain and deter Iran. Iran’s continued support for terrorism and its prospective emergence as a nuclear power threaten many countries. Ahmadinejad’s belligerence gives Washington greater opportunity to mobilize other states, particularly those in the growing shadow of Iranian power. The United States should maintain a strong naval and air presence in the Persian Gulf to deter Iran and strengthen military cooperation with the Gulf States, which are growing increasingly anxious about Iran’s hard-line government.
The U.S. and its European allies should strengthen military, intelligence, and security cooperation with such threatened states as Iraq, Turkey, Israel, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), which was founded in 1981 to provide collective security for Arab states threatened by Iran. Such a coalition could help both to contain the expansion of Iranian power and to facilitate military action, if necessary, against Iran. Washington should also offer to deploy or sell anti-ballistic missile defense systems to threatened states, enhance joint military planning, and step up joint military exercises focused on the Iranian threat.
Maintain the U.S. commitment to building a stable and democratic Iraq. A cornerstone of any policy to contain Iran must be strong support for an independent, democratic Iraq that is an ally in the war against terrorism. On January 20, you will become the commander in chief of the war in Iraq, and it will no longer be “Bush’s war.” You must reconsider your pledge to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months. While this pledge may have made political sense during the campaign when you mistakenly concluded that the war was lost, such a policy will be disastrous if you cling to it as President. It is now clear that the surge has been a success and the war is winnable. If you remain committed to a rapid pullout according to an arbitrary deadline, you risk squandering the hard-won gains of the surge and plunging Iraq into a humanitarian catastrophe that will jeopardize U.S. national security interests, threaten the stability of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and leave Iraq more vulnerable to Iranian meddling.
Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called a withdrawal timetable “dangerous.” You should accept his advice and the considered judgment of military professionals including General David Petraeus, the Commander of Central Command, in adopting a policy of gradual withdrawal and continued support for building Iraqi security forces. You should warn Tehran that continued meddling in Iraq, particularly cross-border support for the “special groups” and other forces hostile to the Iraqi government, will destroy the possibility of better relations with the United States, slow the pace of withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, and increase the size of the residual force that you have promised to maintain in Iraq to assist the Iraqi government in fighting terrorism.
Set conditions on any talks with Tehran that minimize Iran’s ability to exploit such talks to defuse international opposition to its hostile foreign policy. One last attempt at a negotiated solution to the nuclear impasse may be necessary, if only to set the stage for the use of military force as a last resort, but your Administration must be careful not to hand Tehran the opportunity to go through the motions of diplomatic dialogue in order to undermine international support for economic sanctions and military action while it continues its nuclear program in secret. Given Iran’s long history of taqiyyah diplomacy, duplicity, and denial on the nuclear issue, the United States should enter into direct diplomatic talks only if there is a clear understanding that the talks are not open-ended and that Iran must halt its suspect nuclear activities and agree to robust IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities for the talks to continue beyond a reasonable time limit–one that is measured in weeks, not months. The talks should be conducted through the State Department, not the White House, and the President should rule out any meeting with Iran’s leaders unless they have agreed to halt their nuclear weapons program.
Support democratic opposition forces within Iran. A strategy of regime change is problematic and unlikely to succeed before Iran attains a nuclear weapon. The U.S. cannot depend on exile groups. The future of Iran will be determined by groups that have strength on the ground inside Iran. There is considerable grumbling at a lack of freedom, human rights abuses, corruption, and economic problems but no certainty that such grumbling will lead to meaningful change any time soon. A well-educated group of young reformers are seeking to replace the current mullahcracy with a genuine democracy that is accountable to the Iranian people. They were demoralized by former President Khatami’s failure to live up to his promises of reform and by his lack of support for the student uprisings of 1999, but a growing popular disenchantment with the policies of President Ahmadinejad is likely to re-energize them.
The U.S. and its allies should discreetly support all Iranian opposition groups that reject terrorism and advocate democracy by publicizing their activities both internationally and within Iran, giving them organizational training, and inviting them to attend international conferences and workshops outside of Iran. Educational exchanges with Western students would help to bolster and open up communications with Iran’s restive students, who historically have played a leading role in their country’s reform movements. The U.S. should covertly subsidize opposition publications and organizing efforts, as it did to aid the anti-Communist opposition during the Cold War in Europe and Asia. However, such programs should be strictly segregated from public outreach efforts by the U.S. and its allies in order to avoid putting Iranian participants in international forums at risk of arrest or persecution when they return home.
America should not try to play favorites among the various Iranian opposition groups, but should instead encourage them to cooperate under the umbrella of the broadest possible coalition.
Launch a public diplomacy campaign to explain to the Iranian people how the regime’s nuclear weapons program and hard-line policies hurt their economic and national interests. Iran’s clerical regime has tightened its grip on the media in recent years, shutting down more than 100 independent newspapers, jailing journalists, closing down Web sites, and arresting bloggers. The U.S. and its allies should work to defeat the regime’s suppression of independent media by increasing Farsi broadcasts by such government-sponsored media as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe (Radio Farda), and other information sources. The free flow of information is essential to the free flow of political ideas. The Iranian people need access to information about the activities of opposition groups, both within and outside of Iran, and the plight of dissidents.
Prepare for the use of military force as a last resort. You have wisely promised that “we will never take military options off the table.” There is no guaranteed policy that can halt the Iranian nuclear program short of war, and even a military campaign may only delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. But U.S. policymaking regarding the Iranian nuclear issue inevitably boils down to a search for the least-bad option, and as potentially costly and risky as a preventive war against Iran would be, allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons could result in far heavier costs and risks.
The U.S. could probably deter Iran from a direct nuclear attack by threatening massive retaliation and the assured destruction of the Iranian regime, but there is lingering doubt that Ahmadinejad, who reportedly harbors apocalyptic religious beliefs regarding the return of the Mahdi, would have the same cost-benefit calculus about a nuclear war that other leaders would have. Moreover, his regime might risk passing nuclear weapons off to terrorist surrogates in hopes of escaping retaliation for a nuclear surprise attack launched by an unknown attacker.
Moreover, even if Iran could be deterred from considering such attacks, an Iranian nuclear breakout would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Algeria to seek to build or acquire their own nuclear weapons. Each new nuclear power would multiply the risks and uncertainties in an already volatile region.
Iran also might be emboldened to step up its support for terrorism and subversion, calculating that its nuclear capability would deter a military response. An Iranian miscalculation could easily lead to a military clash with the U.S. or an American ally that would impose exponentially higher costs than would be imposed by a war with a non-nuclear Iran. All of these risks must be considered before deciding on how to proceed if diplomacy fails to prevent the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
The United States has sought to coax another sanctions resolution out of the U.N. Security Council, which has passed three rounds of limited sanctions on Iran, but past U.S. and European efforts to ratchet up sanctions against Iran have been frustrated by Russia and China. Both countries have lucrative trade relationships with and strategic ties to Tehran, and both have used their veto power as members of the Security Council to delay and dilute efforts to impose sanctions. Under Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, Iran concealed and lied about its nuclear program for two decades before admitting that it had built a secret uranium enrichment plant at Natanz in 2003. When confronted, Tehran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program, undoubtedly out of fear of a U.S.-led intervention after America took military action to remove regimes in neighboring states led by Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.
Preventing a nuclear Iran is one of the most difficult and dangerous problems that confronts your Administration. You should learn from the experience of past efforts to negotiate with Iran and deal with Tehran from a position of strength, stressing sticks rather than carrots, because for Iran, a nuclear weapon is the biggest carrot. Targeted economic sanctions and the possible use of military force are your biggest sources of leverage. The only hope of aborting the Iranian nuclear bomb lies in convincing Iran’s leaders that the economic, diplomatic, and possible military costs of continuing their nuclear program are so high that they threaten the regime’s hold on power. Any talks with Iran should be structured to produce quick results and preclude Tehran from stretching out the negotiations indefinitely.
You should rule out a presidential meeting with Iranian leaders until they have agreed to end their nuclear weapons efforts in a verifiable manner based on intrusive international inspections. Accepting anything less will only give Iran’s radical regime yet another opportunity to renege on their commitments when it suits their purposes.
James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute, at The Heritage Foundation.
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