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Senators' Exhortations Complicate Iran Solution

Volume 4, Issue 9, August 8, 2013

By mid-September, P5+1 diplomats (from the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) will likely resume talks aimed at resolving concerns about Iran's nuclear program with President Hassan Rouhani's new negotiating team. The talks represent an important opportunity to finally reach a deal that limits Iran's most worrisome uranium enrichment activities, obtains more extensive inspections to guard against a secret weapons program, and shows Iran a path toward phasing out international sanctions.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to encourage President Obama "to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the process," a group of 76 Senators led by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has sent a letter on August 2 to Obama that could undermine efforts to resolve the long-running dispute. The letter's prescriptions may prompt the same kind of counterproductive impact by Iran, which Paul Pillar predicted in The National Interest in response to House passage of H.R. 850, the "Nuclear Iran Prevention Act."

The Menendez-Graham letter emphasizes toughening sanctions and making military threats more credible, just as Iran installs a president elected on a platform of renewing diplomatic engagement and putting an end to international isolation. The senator's approach represents a serious misunderstanding of political realities in Iran and the nature of upcoming nuclear negotiations.

The June 2013 election results show that Iranians are dissatisfied by outgoing President Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy and the international isolation that has resulted from his confrontational policies. Newly-elected President Rouhani has signaled a willingness to accept greater transparency in Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for acceptance of Iran's rights to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. This is the basic framework within which a negotiated resolution to the Iran nuclear crisis is possible.

With the tough economic sanctions now in place, and a broad political consensus holding among the six powers negotiating with Iran, the international community has the leverage it needs to achieve an acceptable agreement. However, the Senators' letter argues that more sanctions and more credible military threats will persuade Tehran to make a deal.

Sanctions have certainly affected Iran's economy and the government's risk/benefit calculations, but they will not by themselves halt Iran's nuclear program. It is fantasy to believe otherwise. The implementation of still tougher sanctions at the outset of renewed talks would harden Iran's resolve, fracture the P5+1 coalition, and dim the prospects for persuading Tehran to compromise.

Overt threats of military attack would be even more likely to undermine P5+1 solidarity and reduce the likelihood of Iran foregoing the nuclear weapons option. In any case, military action--short of a permanent occupation--cannot prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, military and intelligence experts agree that striking Iran's nuclear facilities would only delay Iran's program by two to three years and trigger an Iranian decision to openly build nuclear weapons.

Advances in Iran's enrichment capabilities and the start up of a new heavy water reactor next year make it important to reach a deal that limits Iran's bomb-making potential as soon as possible.

But the Senators' implication that "the time for diplomacy is nearing its end" is naïve and unhelpful. Given the deep distrust on both sides of the negotiating table, negotiations will not likely produce immediate results. Furthermore, security experts assess that if Iran chooses to actually build nuclear weapons, it would take at least a year and probably two or more years to produce enough fissile material, manufacture the warheads, and integrate them on ballistic missiles to field a credible arsenal.

The Senators' letter also calls for demanding Iran "move quickly toward compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend enrichment." U.S. policymakers must recognize that, although total and permanent suspension of enrichment would be an ideal way to facilitate achievement of an ultimate agreement, it is no longer feasible. Realists know that the negotiating issue at stake is not whether to allow enrichment, but rather the circumstances under which enrichment can occur.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already testified to Congress in March 2011 that Iran had a right to enrich under "very strict conditions." Today, the P5+1 is insisting on sufficient transparency for nuclear activities inside Iran so that the International Atomic Energy Agency can be confident Tehran is not developing nuclear weapons and on placing sufficient limitations on enrichment that Tehran has no quick break-out options.

The Senators also argue that the goal of U.S. policy should be that "we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability." This assertion ignores the fact that Iran already has the capability to develop nuclear weapons, according to the 2007 and subsequent assessments of the U.S. Intelligence Community, but that the Tehran government has not made a decision to do so. It is reasonable to assume that Tehran wants to have an ability to build nuclear weapons quickly, but does not necessarily intend to leave the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Opinion polls in Iran indicate strong public support for Iran's "right" to enrich uranium, but only a minority of Iranians favor the building of nuclear weapons.

President Rouhani told reporters on August 6 that "Iran has a serious political will to solve the nuclear problem while protecting the rights of the Iranian people at the same time as it seeks to remove concerns of the other party." He also said a "win-win" outcome is possible. Yet Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, clearly suspects that the real U.S. goal in negotiations over the nuclear program is to achieve regime change in Tehran.

Khamenei may ultimately insist on keeping more nuclear options open to Iran than any deal the P5+1 could tolerate. But if the Iranian negotiators can strike a compromise acceptable to the six powers, Rouhani will need to convince the Supreme Leader and other regime elements that Iran's honor has been preserved and its national interests protected.

The Menendez-Graham letter may be well intentioned, but its emphasis on threats and demands is misplaced and ill-timed. As President Obama argued in March 2009, "[the diplomatic] process will not be advanced by threats." The president was right then and the advice resonates now more than ever.

The United States would be wise to seize the opportunity presented by Iran's new president, reinvigorating diplomatic efforts to secure a verifiable agreement-on the basis of realistic and achievable goals. In this way, Washington can ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons and the United States does not again go to war. --GREG THIELMANN

[An earlier version of this article appeared in The National Interest, August 6, 2013]


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