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Don't put international cooperation on Iran at risk
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Arms Control NOW

By Peter Crail

The following entry was originally posted on The Hill's Congress Blog on September 29, 2011.

During Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the UN last week, many attendees turned their backs and walked out. Although they were reacting to another anti-West tirade by the embattled president, the reaction was also indicative of Iran's own increasing isolation over its human rights abuses, its destabilizing role in the region, and of course, its nuclear program.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Speaks at the UN (Image Source: Associated Press)

In the past month, we have seen a legal spat between Russia and Iran over Moscow's cancellation of an air-defense system contract, news of Chinese firms slowing investment in Iran's critical energy sector, and Turkish agreement to host a missile defense radar unofficially geared towards the missile threat from Iran. These are not the usual suspects. But between Iran's own refusal to cooperate with international inspectors on its nuclear program and careful diplomatic outreach by the United States to convince other countries to take the Iranian threat seriously, global pressure on Iran is increasing.

This steadily growing international partnership to address Iran's nuclear ambitions is vital to influencing Iran's decision-making about its nuclear program. According to the U.S. intelligence community, Tehran has not yet made the decision to build a nuclear weapon. The task therefore, is to prevent Iran's Supreme Leader from making that decision, and making the continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons option as difficult, expensive, and risky as possible.

There is no silver bullet, no single course of action, which will accomplish this objective. Dealing with Iran will require deftness and persistence—and not just on the part of the United States. A serious, multi-faceted approach must continue to include coordinated, international outreach to show Iran what it can gain through greater cooperation and abandonment of a nuclear-weapon option. Such pressure will only be maintained so long as the U.S. openness to diplomacy can be contrasted with Iran's continued unwillingness to negotiate seriously.

Bolstering targeted sanctions and strategic trade controls will also continue to be an important factor in slowing Iran's nuclear progress. International efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring the necessary goods and technology for its nuclear and missile programs have seen some success, though Iran's ability to develop and manufacture more advanced equipment for its nuclear program has not been entirely erased.

The United States, and Congress in particular, will need to build on these efforts while avoiding actions that would undermine international cooperation to address Iran's nuclear program.

For example, while U.S. sanctions against foreign firms investing in Iran have helped to convince some companies to slow or halt such business, overzealously slapping sanctions on U.S. partners could also make countries like China less willing to cooperate. These countries need to be led to do more, not less.

Most important to avoid is the call to pursue hasty, go-it-alone military action against Iran. Any illusions one harvests about a quick air strike resolving the problem are as naïve as they are dangerous: so, too, is the notion that the United States could launch a full-scale military campaign and occupy yet another country in the region. Not only would we have to bear the cost of such adventurism in terms of blood and treasure, but the follow-on effects for gas prices and the U.S. economy as a whole would be debilitating. Moreover, during a time of great transition in the Middle East, it's hard to quantify how damaging unilateral military action would be, both in terms of our ability to build relationships with new regional governments and our capacity to rally international action going forward.

Ultimately, the decision to build nuclear weapons is a political one, and convincing the regime in Tehran that it is not in its interest to do so requires a focus on undermining any perceived benefits from such weapons, and increasing the cost. This will not be easy, nor will it happen overnight.

But given the internal fissures, dramatic regional changes and growing international pressure, it is possible that Iran may reevaluate its decision-making over the long-term—realizing that the country's political and economic fortunes are better served through cooperation with the world rather than resistance.

Peter Crail is a Nonproliferation Analyst at the Arms Control Association. Kelsey Hartigan is a Policy Analyst at the National Security Network.