With Iran, Obama Needs More Carrot, Less Stick
The American people have spoken, and the next president of the United States will be Barack Obama. Running on a platform of change, the president-elect will be severely tested early in his administration by a host of challenges, be they economic, military, environmental or diplomatic in nature. How Obama handles these issues will define his tenure as America’s chief executive, and there will not — nor should there be — a honeymoon period. The challenges of these times do not permit such a luxury, something the president-elect had to know and comprehend when he chose to run for office. John McCain and Hillary Clinton, Obama’s defeated rivals, were both correct when they noted that the next president would need to be ready to govern on day one. Barack Obama has until the 20th of January to get his policies in order, because at one minute past noon on that day, he becomes the most powerful man in a volatile world. While the problems he will face are many, I will focus on what I believe are the four most critical issues that will need to be addressed in the first weeks and months of the Obama administration: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Russia. This will be done in a series of articles, the first of which will deal with Iran.
Barack Obama, the candidate, said many things about Iran, some of which were inherently contradictory. In this he is not unique, since the reality of the rough-and-tumble world of American presidential politics requires any given candidate to show extreme flexibility in defining solutions to complex problems, oftentimes based not on the facts as they exist, but rather the fiction of domestic political imperative. Sometimes initial positions are staked out based upon fact-based analysis, only to be corrected as a given domestic constituency expresses unease and imposes its own fantasy-based worldview on the candidate. Nowhere is this process of the fictionalization of fact more prevalent than on the issue of Iran and its nuclear program. One year ago, in an interview with The New York Times, Obama demonstrated a level-headed approach toward Iran, expressing “serious concern” over the country’s nuclear program and its support for what he termed “terrorist organizations.” He grounded his comments in an appreciation for the cause-and-effect relationship between Iran’s involvement in Iraq and the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of that country. Obama also expressed the need for “aggressive diplomacy” with Iran at the highest levels and emphasized the importance of economic incentives and security assurances when it came to compelling Iran to change course on its nuclear program.
But many months on the campaign trail, fighting a determined Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, and a critical Republican Party, compelled the thoughtful Harvard-educated foreign policy neophyte to buckle under the pressure of needing to be seen as “strong” and “determined” in the face of continued Iranian intransigence. In July of 2008, following a series of Iranian ballistic missile tests, which included the Shahib-3 long-range missile, Obama seemed to retreat from diplomacy, noting aggressively that “Iran is a great threat.” Instead of trying to balance the Iranian decision to test its missiles with ongoing militaristic rhetoric from both the United States and Israel (including a large-scale Israeli air force exercise that simulated a strike on Iran), Obama undertook a single-dimension approach toward the problem and predictably came up with an equally simplistic solution: “We have to make sure we are working with our allies to apply tightened pressure on Iran,” including tighter economic sanctions. Obama noted that there was a “need for us to create a kind of policy that is putting the burden on Iran to change behavior, and frankly we just have not been able to do that over the last several years.” Gone was any notion of understanding the cause-and-effect relationships that may have influenced Iran’s actions, or the notion that wrongheaded American policy (such as continued economic sanctions) may in fact have contributed to Iran’s behavior.
If one was hoping that Obama’s sweeping electoral victory in the 2008 presidential election might have liberated him from the need to assume a “tough guy” pose, the recent press conference given by the president-elect set the record straight. “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon,” Obama stated, “ … is unacceptable. And we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.” Perhaps Obama received some new insight into Iran from his recent access to top-secret CIA intelligence briefings that prompted him to unilaterally declare as fact the existence of an Iranian program to develop nuclear weapons. There is, of course, no substantive data to sustain such an assertion. As a critic of the U.S. intelligence failure concerning Iraq’s WMD programs in the lead-up to the invasion and occupation of that country, as well as the Bush administration’s politicization of intelligence for ideological motives, Obama would do well to take any intelligence briefing on Iran, void of incontrovertible evidence, with much-warranted skepticism.
The president-elect went on to state, “Iran’s support of terrorist organizations I think is something that has to cease.” It would be nice to know more about how he defines “terrorist organizations.” Is he speaking about Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine or Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq? The last time I looked, Hezbollah was democratically elected to Lebanon’s parliament, representing a significant percentage of the Shiite population of southern Lebanon. And Hamas became a significant player in Palestine’s budding democracy by appealing to the legitimate needs and desires of a growing number of Palestinians unimpressed by the corruption and undemocratic principles of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
If Obama wants to resolve the ongoing debacle that is Iraq, he would be well advised to recognize that Sadr controls more Iraqi citizens than does the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In fact, if he’s serious about ending the violence and establishing long-term stability, Obama would do well to exploit Iran’s deep and meaningful contacts with these three organizations with an eye toward integrating them into the mainstream of their respective domestic political environments. Referring to these organizations as being “terrorist” in nature is not only factually simplistic, but also counterproductive when it comes to establishing and maintaining the kind of dialogue that can result in the diplomatic breakthroughs Barack Obama claims to be seeking. Perhaps the president-elect should take his own counsel: He went on to state, “Obviously, how we approach and deal with a country like Iran is not something that we should, you know, simply do in a knee-jerk fashion. I think we’ve got to think it through.”
Thinking through the complexity of the Iranian issue is exactly what needs to be done. Developing policies based on American political pressure rather than the reality of the Iranian “problem” will solve nothing. Now that the presidential election has liberated Obama from the need to play to the fickle whim of domestic politics, he should consider more far-reaching policy options on Iran.
To begin with, Obama should return to a policy more in line with the original October 2003 “Tehran Declaration,” negotiated between the European Union and Iran, which permitted Iran to engage in uranium enrichment so long as an adequate safeguards inspection regime was in place. The original suspension, which Iran had agreed to and implemented, was intended to be temporary, in effect until the International Atomic Energy Agency could get an adequate inspection regime up and running. However, the United States pressured Europe to alter the terms of the declaration, insisting on a permanent suspension of uranium enrichment, something the Iranians refuse to do to this day. According to the IAEA’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, the watchdog today has in place a safeguards inspection regime that is operating smoothly and in a manner that allows for not only an accounting of the totality of Iran’s nuclear material stockpile, but a full and comprehensive understanding of the scope and scale of Iran’s centrifuge-based enrichment effort as well. There is, therefore, no legitimate reason for continuing to deny Iran its right to enrich uranium in accordance with the terms of the nonproliferation treaty.
It would be ideal for a more intrusive inspection regime, based on what the IAEA calls an “additional protocol,” to be formalized and implemented. This should not be an insurmountable hurdle for progress. Iran has already indicated a willingness to engage in such an expanded inspection regime, contingent upon international recognition of its rights under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium. Obama has spoken of a need for an effective global nonproliferation regime, but this can never happen if the United States shows disrespect for international law and past agreements. The United States’ hypocritical indifference toward the military nuclear programs of non-NPT nations such as Israel, India and Pakistan undermines the administration’s current stance concerning the NPT-compliant Iran.
Rather than focusing on Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts, Obama would do well to shift his attention to Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program, especially the Shahib-3, which has been cited as the principal delivery system for any nuclear weapon Iran might be developing, real or imagined. The Shahib-3 missile is also used by the United States to justify the installation of a ballistic missile defense shield in Europe (with a missile interceptor facility planned for Poland, and an associated radar facility planned for the Czech Republic), an activity that destabilizes arms control and the West’s already fragile relations with Russia. By focusing on any potential delivery system, the United States would de-escalate international concerns over Iran’s uranium enrichment program and increase the likelihood for a diplomatic resolution agreeable to all parties.
While the specifics of any ballistic missile-based negotiation would have to be worked out between the involved parties, a reasonable starting point would be a one-year moratorium on all ballistic missile tests of a given range (for instance, over 500 kilometers), in exchange for which the United States would support and sponsor a regional multilateral Middle Eastern disarmament conference, the goal of which would be a treaty for the elimination of all long-range ballistic missiles in the Middle East. This would be complicated, especially since such a treaty would by necessity need to include Israel. However, given the alternative (continued confrontation with Iran, and the global instability that would result), the difficulties associated with any such disarmament effort are far outweighed by the consequences of doing nothing. Furthermore, a Middle East ballistic missile disarmament effort could serve as the framework around which other regional disarmament efforts could be shaped, including those related to Pakistan and India, and even the United States, Russia and China. It would require the leadership of the United States to pull off any such effort. This should be the kind of leadership challenge an Obama administration should be seeking to embrace.
By minimizing, or eliminating, the problems associated with any potential nuclear weapons delivery system, such as the Shahib-3 missile, the Obama administration could then focus on resolving the standoff over Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. In this, Obama will be able to turn to a new initiative from a close American ally in the Persian Gulf region, the United Arab Emirates, for some “framework” around which new policies might be constructed. I recently attended a NATO conference held in Abu Dhabi, where the UAE government spoke in some detail about its new policy concerning the evaluation and potential development of nuclear energy. Three major items emerged from this policy announcement: first and foremost, the legitimacy of an oil- and natural gas-rich Middle Eastern nation requiring an alternative means of energy production to offset the demands placed on its energy exportation by increasing domestic demands for energy. The UAE decision was driven by economic analysis which showed a cumulative annual growth rate in energy consumption from 2007 through 2020 of some 9 percent, resulting in increased demands for upwards of 40,000 megawatts, which the UAE is not in a position to provide through traditional energy supplies. Iran, of course, made a similar analysis in the mid-1970s when it decided to embark on an ambitious nuclear energy program. Iran’s logic for pursuing nuclear energy has been derided by many who view Tehran’s ambitions as merely a front for a military program. The analysis of the UAE demonstrates the legitimacy of the Iranian nuclear energy need, and should lay to rest any logic-driven analysis that defines Iran’s nuclear ambition as being military in nature simply because Iran is deemed to be a nation “awash in a sea of oil,” to quote past and current Bush administration officials such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.
The UAE noted that it was committed to the “highest standards of nonproliferation” when it came to pursuing any potential nuclear energy program, renouncing any intention to develop domestic enrichment and reprocessing capability. On the surface, the UAE’s approach seems to stand as a contrast to the position taken by Iran, which has committed to an indigenous mastery of the entire nuclear fuel cycle, inclusive of enrichment and reprocessing. However, the UAE’s commitment to nonproliferation is contingent upon two pillars. The first is the ability of the UAE to source nuclear fuel from “reliable and responsible foreign suppliers.” The UAE has also expressed an interest in creating a regional nuclear fuel bank that would guarantee the program access to nuclear fuel in times of regional and/or global unrest and uncertainty. In reviewing the Iranian program, one finds the same need for a guaranteed source of nuclear fuel as the driving force behind Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The vagaries of economic embargoes and sanctions make any Iranian nuclear energy program linked to outside sources of supply futile indeed. The continued American insistence on using economic sanctions and threatening economic embargoes as a means to compel Iran to back down from its position on uranium enrichment is illogical and counterproductive given these realities. Instead, the United States should be seeking to combine Iran’s need for reliable sources of economic-sanction resistant nuclear fuel with that of the UAE (and, looking down the road, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and even Iraq), so that a regional nuclear fuel bank would indeed be just that — regional, inclusive of Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors.
The second pillar of the UAE nonproliferation commitment was more reality-driven: The small size of any future UAE nuclear reactor program makes the expense of an indigenous uranium enrichment program infeasible. As such, the UAE is well positioned to take a high-minded stance when it comes to adhering to “concerns from the international community regarding spent fuel reprocessing and enrichment plants in developing countries, and the dual-use nature of components employed in fuel fabrication and processing.” Simply put, it can’t afford not to. Iran, on the other hand, doesn’t have that luxury. There is no comparison between the scope and scale of the UAE’s nascent nuclear program with that of Iran. Unlike the UAE, the Iranian program is of a size that could justify an indigenous uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing effort, just as the nuclear energy programs of France, Japan and Germany justify their national fuel-cycle programs.
Establishing a policy that accepts the right of Iran to pursue indigenous enrichment of uranium is actually the soundest approach toward getting Iran to back away from the hard-line position it has taken, because when push comes to shove, Iran cannot afford the uranium enrichment program it has embarked on. This, however, is a conclusion that Iran needs to make, free of international pressure. By respecting Iran’s legal right to enrich uranium, the Obama administration would liberate Iran to make reasoned, rational decisions about its economic future, decisions that would take into account the overall economic health of the country, void of the conservative, nationalistic inputs generated in response to outside pressure.
In the end, Iran will probably have three choices to consider: continue its indigenous enrichment program despite the severe economic burden; drop its uranium enrichment program in favor of a secure, reliable international source of nuclear fuel; or seek to integrate its uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing capabilities into a larger regional and global framework, one that not only provides economic relief for the Iranian effort, but also brings with it greater international scrutiny and inspection, adherence to international practices and procedures on the handling and accountability of nuclear material, and viability to any regional nuclear fuel bank that would incorporate the product of Iran’s enrichment programs. The integration of Iran more fully into the Persian Gulf economy is by far the best guarantor of long-term stability in that region. Iran’s nuclear program should be seen as an opportunity in this regard, not an obstacle.
As Iran heads toward a presidential election in the coming year, the United States — and the Obama administration — would achieve better and longer-lasting results by seeking solutions geared toward resolving the legitimate issues at play in the region, rather than creating short-term sound bites here at home. A clean break with the neoconservative policies of the Bush administration is a prerequisite for success, and achieving this requires great imagination and courage. President-elect Barack Obama has demonstrated the potential for both of those qualities. I hope that promise is realized.
Scott Ritter is a former U.N. weapons inspector and military intelligence officer. He is the author of numerous books, including “Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change.”