“A Rare Period of Momentum and International Unity Regarding Iran”

January 31, 2012

As International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors visit Iran, and Tehran considers a return to the negotiating table, this week gives hints of a window of opportunity for diplomacy to defuse tensions and resolve the crisis. Security leaders and experts from the U.S. and Israel continue to speak out in growing numbers about the need for a serious strategic debate on Iran policy, for a diplomatic strategy, and for recognition that an attack will not stop Iran’s nuclear program and may both reinforce Iran’s determination and spur retaliatory attacks. The flood of options, strategies and debate on Iran stands in sharp contrast to campaign-trail fear-mongering, and sends a simple message:  the U.S. has time, and it has strength, to shape a policy that is effective, not just reactive.

Diplomacy, pressure showing results. In the last week Iran has seemed to edge closer to resuming international talks on its nuclear program and accepted a visit from IAEA inspectors to take stock of its nuclear programs. And China, one of its key economic partners, has signaled, as the Economist writes, that “[t]hey have a genuine interest in maintaining peace, and will not endanger it through a misplaced sense of loyalty to Iran, nor with outworn diplomatic dogma.”

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and contributor to the New Yorker, summarizes, “There is reason to doubt, though, that an attack on Iran is imminent. The United States and the European Union are ratcheting up economic sanctions in the hope that they will push Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to re-start serious nuclear negotiations after a year’s hiatus. The E.U.’s twenty-seven member countries, which buy about a fifth of Iran’s oil exports, agreed last week to forgo all Iranian crude by July. Ahmadinejad said soon afterward that he would indeed be willing to talk again. The strategy, led by Obama, appears to be achieving its aim of raising the pressure on the ayatollahs to an unprecedented level. The value of Iran’s currency has fallen sharply. The diplomatic campaign would be stronger if it contained a definite plan to assuage Iran’s fears that the West and Israel ultimately seek regime change in Tehran—fears that presumably inform Iran’s search for a nuclear deterrent. Yet this is a rare period of momentum and international unity regarding Iran. ‘A peaceful resolution . . . is still possible, and far better,’ the President said in the State of the Union. An attack now by either Israel or the United States would shatter diplomacy’s achievements.” [Economist, 1/28/12. Steve Coll, 2/6/12]

Experts stress that attacks unlikely to stop bomb, likely encourage decision to weaponize. Defense Secretary Panetta acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal last week that the Pentagon lacks confidence that its largest bomb, the Massive Ordinance Penetrator, can reach all of Iran’s buried facilities. That is just one of the challenges an attack faces. Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M University and Sarah Kreps from Cornell University recently examined all historical cases where countries bombed nuclear plants to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. They write, “Our analysis showed that several attacks have significantly delayed the target’s ability to build the bomb. However, four observations gleaned from previous attacks suggest that history is unlikely to repeat itself when it comes to Iran:

“First, the targets have often possessed a small and geographically concentrated nuclear program… Iran’s nuclear program, which dates to the 1950s, however, is relatively advanced and highly diffuse. A number of facilities would need to be destroyed to significantly curtail Iran’s weapons program.

“Second, the fairly advanced state of Iran’s nuclear program also raises the likelihood that it has clandestine facilities that neither Israel nor the U.S. knows about. Advocates of attacking Iran suggest that this is unlikely, but history tells a different story…

“Third, even if we assume that the U.S. could locate and destroy all of Iran’s facilities, Tehran already possesses the knowledge required to produce enriched uranium — a critical ingredient for nuclear weapons. Any facilities that were destroyed could be rebuilt relatively quickly…

“Fourth, history suggests that multiple attacks are often necessary to significantly curtail a nuclear weapons program… Even in a best-case scenario, an attack against Iran is unlikely to be a ‘smash and grab’ job. Instead, success is likely to require sustained military pressure over several years and perhaps decades.”

Yet, a military strike is not only unlikely to stop the actual development of a nuclear weapon – a decision that U.S. intelligence and the IAEA believe has not been made yet by Iranian leaders – it reinforces the case for such development. Ambassador James Dobbins explains: “Threats of military action, and even more its actual conduct, will only have the opposite effect: reducing Iran’s isolation, increasing its influence, promoting domestic solidarity, and reinforcing the case for building and deploying nuclear weapons as soon as possible.” Meanwhile, today Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the view of U.S. intelligence agencies on Iran’s nuclear intentions has not shifted since last year, he said Iran appears to be “keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” but that “we do not know” what  it will decide. [Matthew Fuhrmann and Sarah Kreps, 1/30/12. WS Journal, 1/28/12. James Dobbins, 11/16/11. James Clapper via Washington Post, 1/31/12]

Time for strategy not rhetoric. The GOP presidential primary has sparked bellicose rhetoric but little talk about the way forward. By contrast, three senior Israeli military and diplomatic leaders this week called for “a real debate about Iran.” President emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Cold Warrior Les Gelb put forward the contours of an option: “As Western leaders back Iran into a corner and as they are locking themselves into a war policy they haven’t seriously contemplated and don’t really want, now is the time to offer a deal. The peace package is simple: Iran keeps its uranium facilities but with capabilities to enrich reduced to levels fit only for civilian use. Tehran also agrees to the tightest international verification procedures. The West lifts sanctions gradually as Iran complies with both reconfiguring its nuclear plants and accepts the necessary verification. For sure, President Obama has tried similar proposals before. This time, however, Iran may find that the biting economic pressures make the deal more palatable. For sure, neither I nor anyone else knows whether Iran will accept this time. But I do know this: if we don’t at least try the negotiating track, a war of untold uncertainties and dangers can come upon us.” [Shlomo Brom, Shai Feldman, Shimon Stein, 1/30/11. Les Gelb, 1/30/12]

What We’re Reading

Russia warned that a UN Security Council resolution on Syria could spark a civil war.

A U.S. airstrike in Yemen killed 15 al Qaeda militants.

European leaders agreed to stricter budget rules amid the Eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis.

The Mexican ambassador to Venezuela and his wife were kidnapped in the capital Caracas and held for four hours before being released.

Afghan officials and Taliban representatives may hold talks in Saudi Arabia.

A United Nations fact-finding mission tentatively supported new stress tests to determine whether Japan’s nuclear plants can survive another emergency.

The Somali militant group al Shabab banned the Red Cross from areas it controls.

A Communist official in Tibet called for increased security measures in the wake of deadly protests across Sichuan province.

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier may face corruption charges.

Fighting between Pakistani soldiers and Taliban militants has killed more than 60 people in northwest Pakistan.

Commentary of the Day

Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis make the case for using surveillance drones in Syria.

George Friedman says Germany now owns the Eurozone crisis.

Nushin Arbabzadah examines the trust deficit in Afghanistan.

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