Looking Ahead On Iran

March 29, 2012

Negotiations between the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) with Iran over its nuclear program are expected to begin April 13. Expectations should be modest, but experts report interesting signals coming from Teheran, including the agreement to hold a multi-day meeting in which actual negotiation could take place. These talks can begin to address the most immediate proliferation concerns and serve as the start of a longer set of conversations. A strong consensus among the policy community in the U.S. and Israel has emerged that an attack would run counter to our goals and interests, while negotiations can help create the environment for Iran to make the political decision to accept a verified stop to its weapons programs.

Aim of talks is to address most immediate proliferation concerns; need for a sustained conversation. The Council on Foreign Relations recently surveyed top nuclear security experts on what to expect from the upcoming negotiations: “All agree on the need to address immediate proliferation risks, including halting Iran’s accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium.” Yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ambassador Thomas Pickering laid out reasons for tempered optimism:  “In the past there have been one-day meetings where one side simply rejected the proposal of the other. There was no opportunity provided to negotiate and discuss differences. It appears that the intention this time is to make the up-coming meeting a multi-day event with hopefully then the opportunity for constructive give and take.”

Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies expands, “The immediate aim of the upcoming talks is to build confidence that Iran will not be able to make a quick sprint to build nuclear weapons. This will require limits on its nuclear program and greater transparency. The limits mandated by successive UN Security Council resolutions remain the ideal: suspension of the nuclear activities that cause concern. There is no chance, however, that Iran will cave in completely after six years of resisting this demand.” Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association adds, “it is clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is neither imminent nor inevitable. One high-profile meeting will not, however, produce a long-term deal. Progress requires a sustained, serious dialogue consisting of high-level and technical meetings on a multilateral and bilateral basis.” [CFR.org, 3/23/12. Thomas Pickering, 3/28/12. Mark Fitzpatrick, 3/23/12. Daryl Kimball, 3/23/12]

American and Israeli security experts agree that negotiations are preferred path, attack would be counter-productive.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering: “[A military strike] has a very high propensity, in my view, of driving Iran in the direction of openly declaring and deciding, which it has not yet done according to our intelligence, to make a nuclear weapon to seemingly defend itself under what might look to them and others to be an unprovoked attack. Iran has great possibilities for asymmetrical reactions including against Israel through Hezbollah and Hamas who have accumulated a large number of missiles… It is a series of potential escalatory possibilities that puts us deep in the potential for another land war in Asia, something that I think we’ve spent the last number of years trying to get out of.” [Thomas Pickering via Think Progress, 3/28/12]

General James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bush and Obama: Radio Free Europe reports that Cartwright testified yesterday that “a limited strike on Iran would ‘probably’ strengthen Tehran’s resolve to move forward toward creating nuclear weapons.” [RFERL, 3/29/12]

Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, discusses the case study of Iraq’s nuclear program and the determination to pursue the weapon following the 1981 Osirak strike by Israel. He writes, “By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault.” [Colin Kahl, 3/2/12]

Meir Dagan, former Mossad chief: “We are going to ignite, at least from my point of view, a regional war. And wars, you know how they start. You never know how you are ending it…. It will be a devastating impact on our ability to continue with our daily life. I think that Israel will be in a very serious situation for quite a time.” He added,  “There’s no military attack that can halt the Iranian nuclear project. It could only delay it.” [Meir Dagan via CBS, 3/11/12]

Jim Walsh, research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): “The U.S. intel community says with high confidence that Iran has made a capability decision, not a bomb decision… Bombing them will produce a bomb decision, and that will be very difficult to stop.” [Jim Walsh via Reuters, 3/29/12]

Underlying strategy: create the environment of pressure, positive options in which Iran can choose to take itself off the nuclear path. Earlier this month President Obama outlined his strategy on Iran, “When I took office, the efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters.  Iran had gone from zero centrifuges spinning to thousands, without facing broad pushback from the world.  In the region, Iran was ascendant — increasingly popular, and extending its reach.  In other words, the Iranian leadership was united and on the move, and the international community was divided about how to go forward. And so from my very first months in office, we put forward a very clear choice to the Iranian regime:  a path that would allow them to rejoin the community of nations if they meet their international obligations, or a path that leads to an escalating series of consequences if they don’t.  In fact, our policy of engagement — quickly rebuffed by the Iranian regime — allowed us to rally the international community as never before, to expose Iran’s intransigence, and to apply pressure that goes far beyond anything that the United States could do on our own. Because of our efforts, Iran is under greater pressure than ever before.”

Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering, two senior diplomats who dealt with our most hardened adversaries during the Cold War, explain that the best way to prevent the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon is to create an environment for them to choose not to: “History teaches that engagement and diplomacy pay dividends that military threats do not… Deploying diplomats with a strategy while maintaining some pressure on Iran will lower Tehran’s urgency to build a bomb and reduce the danger of conflict. The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action. Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost.” [Barack Obama, 3/4/12. William Luers and Thomas Pickering, 12/30/11]

What We’re Reading

Congressman Paul Ryan questioned senior U.S. military commanders’ honesty in their budget requests to Congress.

A new satellite image revealed increased activity on North Korea’s launch pad as the nation prepares for its missile launch.

Explosions hit Baghdad as Arab leaders met for talks on a UN-backed peace plan for Syria.

Security officials in Yemen reported that Saudi Arabia’s deputy consul was kidnapped in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden.

The United States imposed sanctions on two engineering firms for their ties to an Iranian military unit.

The FBI’s top cybersecurity official warned that the U.S. is “not winning” when it comes to fending off hackers and the current approach is “unsustainable.”

A delegation of West African leaders abandoned plans to visit Mali following the country’s military coup.

African-brokered crisis talks between Sudan and South Sudan were delayed, but the rival sides pledged to prevent an escalation into full-blown war.

Spanish trade unions started a general strike to protest a recent overhaul of labor rules.

Top U.S. and Pakistani military officials exchanged proposals to break the months-old impasse in the bilateral relationship.

Bolivian President Evo Morales gained his party’s unanimous approval to run for re-election in the country’s 2014 election.

Commentary of the Day

David Ignatius thinks the Syrian rebels should adhere to the UN-backed peace plan.

The New York Times editorial board suggests Mitt Romney’s recent comments on foreign policy represent either “ignorance or craven politics.”

Jaswant Singh says that as Burma continues to reform and gains new global friends, these new allies will have covert motives.

Nickolas Roth details how every second term Republican President since the beginning of the nuclear age proposed dramatic changes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

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