It is widely believed that the massive $60 billion U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia is directed against Iran. After all, Israel did not object to the deal. As one analyst told China's Xinhua News Agency, Jerusalem, of all places, was simply adhering to the ancient principle of: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."
It is indeed possible that the deal -- which includes up to 84 new F-15s, upgrading of Riyadh's current force of 70 F-15s, and up to 1,000 so-called "bunker buster" bombs -- is meant to enhance the Saudi deterrent against Iran. But that presupposes that Iran will still be moving ahead with its nuclear weapons program in 2015, when the first new F-15s will be delivered to the desert kingdom, but will not yet have actually fielded the bomb. Should Iran already have acquired nuclear weapons together with viable systems for delivering them prior to that date, it is difficult to see how the Saudi purchases would effectively deter Tehran from anything other than a conventional attack on the Saudi Kingdom. On the other hand, should Iran have dropped its nuclear program -- whether as a result of either international pressure or an internal upheaval -- the Saudi purchase would appear to be somewhat beside the point.
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In negotiating tradecraft, the distinction between positions and interests is a fundamental one. Parties with divergent interests can unite behind common positions, like the environmentalists and trade unions who opposed NAFTA in the 1990s. Just as often, parties with opposing positions fail to perceive their common interests, like divorcing parents whose acrimony blinds them to what is best for their children.
It is neglect of this vital distinction that now has the United States scrambling to salvage Middle East peace talks, which are threatened by a resurgent dispute over Israeli settlement activity. The Obama administration initially viewed the settlements issue as "low-hanging fruit" -- the Palestinians, Arab states, international public opinion, and frankly even many Israelis were against settlement activity, whereas a seeming minority on the Israeli right favored it. Thus, the White House viewed insistence on a settlement freeze as a way to restore confidence in U.S. impartiality while jump-starting the peace process. As is now well-known, precisely the opposite occurred -- U.S. relations with all sides have been strained, and the peace process has yet to take flight.
To understand what went wrong, one must look past the Israelis' and Palestinians' positions on settlements and understand how they define their interests.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a June 14, 2009 speech, provided insight into his opposition to a settlement freeze. In his remarks, Netanyahu asserts that "The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been -- and remains -- the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historic homeland." In his view, Arab efforts to eliminate Israel began in 1947 with the United Nations proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and have not truly ebbed since despite Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. That those efforts began before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and that rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza continued after Israeli troops withdrew from both territories, are to Netanyahu and many Israelis evidence that the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank is not the cause of the animosity toward them.
It is this interest-- defending the continued existence of a Jewish state that has been under attack since its founding -- that leads not only to Netanyahu's insistence that the Palestinians explicitly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, but also to his rejection of a settlement freeze. If the Palestinians and Arabs will not do the former, Netanyahu and his allies view the latter as pointless at best and at worst dangerous succor to those who would delegitimize Israel. While many Israelis do not share Netanyahu's position on settlements, they do share his interest in defending Israel's legitimacy, and thus have reacted negatively to what they view as Washington's harsh approach.
The Palestinian narrative is quite different. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 constituted a catastrophe which left them scattered and displaced. In the nations which received them, they were -- with few exceptions -- refugees or guest workers with few rights and little respect, despite the lip service paid to the Palestinian cause. For years, Palestinians themselves had scant voice in that cause, and there was little support among leaders in the region or elsewhere for the independent state envisaged in 1947.
For Palestinians, these twin interests -- justice for refugees who have been the region's second-class citizens for sixty years, and ensuring that the emergence of a Palestinian state remains viable -- motivate deep opposition to continued Israeli settlement activity. In their view, it makes little sense to engage in negotiations aimed at satisfying these interests while simultaneously acceding to activity which undermines them.
On Monday, Netanyahu offered to extend Israel's settlement freeze if the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians immediately refused. Given the interests described above, one can see why Israel made the offer, as well as why the Palestinians rejected it. Israel is ready to modify its position on a settlement freeze if its interests are otherwise satisfied; but Palestinians likewise wish to see their interests fulfilled, and not merely their position on a settlement freeze conceded. For this reason, the Palestinians for their part have insisted that Israel and the United States declare that the basis for negotiations over the borders of a Palestinian state will be the "1967 lines" to ensure a Palestinian state's viability.
Thus the fight over a settlement freeze is in reality a conflict by proxy over the competing interests of each party. But because those interests will only be satisfied through negotiations, and not conceded by the other side prior to the talks, no sustainable compromise can be found as long as the freeze remains an issue. For this reason, temporarily extending the freeze as the United States is reportedly seeking to do can only postpone a crisis for another day, if that. Moving forward will require that the Obama administration acknowledge that its early emphasis on settlements was mistaken in order to deflect blame and anger that might otherwise be directed at Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas for changing their stances.
The good news is that while Israeli and Palestinian positions on a settlement freeze are seemingly irreconcilable, the interests underlying their positions are not. Indeed, polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the people on both sides are ready for a two-state solution. What's more, the parties have other interests -- such as the desire for peace and quiet for their people and to sideline extremists sponsored by Iran -- which enhance the motivation of each to find common ground. This is where American mediation must play a role -- helping the parties see past their conflicting positions, and to recognize their mutual interests.
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Nouri al-Maliki appears close to a deal that will
put Iraq's Shi'ia parties in power. After seven months of political
wrangling, it would be tempting to believe that any government formed by Iraq's
squabbling political leaders is progress. It is not.
The political slate that garnered the most seats in the parliamentary elections, Ayad Allawi's non-sectarian bloc, ought to have had the first shot at forming a government. Prime Minister Maliki's manipulations of electoral commission findings and superseding of judicial decisions accrued that advantage instead to his second-place finish.
Even with the advantages of incumbency in a system newly empowered and without strong legal constraints, Maliki has been unable to cobble together a coalition. Other parties fear a "soft coup" of Maliki consolidating power and have been unwilling to join a government with him as prime minister.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
The freedom section of President Obama's address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday deserves applause -- two cheers at least. It was the most extensive, fulsome, and compelling defense of human rights and democracy of his presidency, and it strategically placed political freedom in the context of economic freedom and development. To be sure, it was also a long overdue statement; Obama's relative silence and inaction on such issues until now has been a major disappointment. Whatever the reasons may have been for the prior reticence -- an immature "Anything But Bush" reflex, a relative disinterest in foreign policy, an enervated and miscast "realism," -- they have now been supplanted. With this speech, the historically bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting liberty and human dignity abroad has returned, and on the world stage of the United Nations General Assembly.
Why not three cheers? While presidential rhetoric matters, to have enduring meaning it must be backed up by action. As strong as it was as a statement of principles, President Obama's speech did not point to a policy course going forward. Tellingly, the first third of his speech in the "what we have done" section reviewing his first two years contained not a word on the cause of freedom. It was only in the looking ahead, "what are we trying to build" section at the end that he turned to human rights and democracy.
But it is a welcome turn, and fortunately comes at what could be a propitious time for the advance of liberty. As powerful as the presidency is, it is still in the service of events. George W. Bush did not set out to be a wartime president until September 11th; Harry Truman did not assume office intending to be America's first Cold War president. The challenge a president faces is to read events and respond by seizing the initiative, to steer history's tides rather than merely be swept along.
What of events today? Even a cursory glance around the globe shows a number of nations that are in tyranny's crucible, and whose citizens may find the possibility of freedom within their grasp. Sometimes this grasp can be aided by presidential attention or even a few strategic gestures that tip the scales. Such can be the opportunity for President Obama.
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By coincidence, I happened to read two stories back-to-back: the Iranian regime is apparently dangling offers to help us in Afghanistan; and Secretary Robert Gates thinks the proliferation-related sanctions are hurting Iran more than expected. My reading them back-to-back may be a coincidence, but I suspect the stories are related in a fundamental way.
David Ignatius notes one way the stories are related: Skeptics will argue
against grasping the Iranian dangle for fear that would "dilute the main focus
of Iran policy, which is stopping Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons." He
claims that similar fears derailed an earlier potentially fruitful collaboration
with Iran on Iraq in 2006, and he hopes the Obama administration won't make the
same "mistake." To bolster his case, he cites "hardliners" in Tehran who
exploited the abortive diplomatic maneuvers in 2006 to discredit the United
States as a negotiating partner.
But I don't find Ignatius's reasoning very persuasive because he avoids addressing the most obvious connection. Perhaps Iran is dangling these offers now precisely so as to disrupt the sanctions. Consider the similarities in the pattern. The earlier Iranian dangle came when a) the situation in Iraq was unraveling so U.S. local leverage was eroding but b) after a long period of paralysis there was finally modest progress on the nuclear file with credible threats of tighter sanctions on Iran and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage was weakening to terrain where it was strengthening made a lot of sense -- for the Iranian regime.
The current Iranian dangle comes when a) the situation in Afghanistan is dodgy (and probably some within the Obama camp even fear it is unraveling) but b) after a long period of paralysis there is finally modest progress on the nuclear file with increased sanctions inflicting noticeable pain on the Iranian regime and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage is weakening to terrain where it is strengthening makes a lot of sense -- for the Iranian regime.
It only makes sense to take up the Iranian dangle on Afghanistan if we can do so without relaxing pressure on the nuclear file. If, as Ignatius and other optimists assert, the Iranians are doing this out of a sincere desire to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, we should be able to explore that without relaxing nuclear-related sanctions. Indeed, the sanctions might even improve our leverage leading to more fruitful cooperation. If Iranians set as preconditions for talks on Afghanistan some sort of relaxation of the economic pressure -- or if our allies on their own relax the economic pressure so as to "help" negotiations on Afghanistan -- then the bargain is a bad one for U.S. foreign policy.
There was a brief window when the Iranian regime actually was helpful on Afghanistan -- during the early post-9/11 window when the Iranian regime was afraid, with some justification, that the United States had an unchecked arsenal of military options at its disposal and was in the mood to wield them. During that period, many previously problematic regimes (Iran, Libya, Sudan) got "on side" with the United States, albeit temporarily or provisionally in some cases. Once the difficulties in Iraq undermined U.S. leverage, however, the incentives for cooperation shifted and the Iranian regime returned to its more common pattern of doing everything it could to frustrate U.S. foreign policy objectives in every arena.
The best way to break that pattern is with smart diplomacy. Smart diplomacy begins with a robust pressure track and builds other components -- direct talks, regional talks, and other carrots -- on that foundation. So let's not take the dangle on Afghanistan until we have locked in the sanctions and have corralled all of our allies in that effort. Once we have, it would be worth exploring other diplomatic avenues, but not before.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of [nuclear] weapons.
-President Obama, Prague, April 5, 2009
Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities. Iran is not implementing the requirements contained in the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council, including implementation of the Additional Protocol, which are essential to building confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of its nuclear program.
-International Atomic Energy Agency, September 6, 2010
The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear program is circulating in Vienna among governments, but has not yet been released officially. Media reports have highlighted Iran's conflict with inspectors, but other developments are more troubling. While couched in the calm tones of international civil servants, the report's message is unmistakable: Iran continues its steady march towards nuclear weapon capabilities, and no recent progress has been made in halting it.
Since the current U.S. administration took office, extending its hand to the leaders in Tehran, Iran has: continued to violate a series of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, now numbering six; increased its declared capacity to enrich uranium by about one-third -- despite U.N. Security Council Resolutions requiring that it halt enrichment; nearly tripled its stocks of low-enriched uranium; begun production of small quantities of uranium enriched to 20 percent, versus earlier production at 3.5 percent; revealed a secret, underground enrichment facility near Qom, while announcing plans for several more; and continued to chip away at the IAEA's ability to monitor nuclear developments.
MARCUS BRANDT/AFP/Getty Images
The ceremony on Saturday marking the beginning of the fueling of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor was preceded by much commentary about the implications of the move for Iran’s nuclear program and international efforts to halt Iran’s steady progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Under construction for decades, it was only a matter of time before Bushehr went live, especially after the Bush administration agreed in 2007 not to object to the project, hoping that a Russian-fueled Iranian reactor producing electricity would obviate Iran’s claimed need for indigenous production of nuclear fuel.
While Bushehr could eventually produce plutonium that Iran could use in a nuclear weapon, this would be a different path to a weapon than the uranium enrichment route that Tehran has thus far pursued. Plus, under Moscow’s agreement with Tehran, Russia will retain the spent fuel, which will be transported back to Russia. All aspects of the reactor’s operations, including the fuel, will be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
These arrangements, are of course not completely foolproof, but are about as close as it gets. Even if Iran wanted a confrontation, and kicked out the Russians and IAEA from Bushehr, Iran does not appear to possess the reprocessing technology required to produce weapons grade plutonium from the spent fuel. Regardless, an international confrontation of this sort would be a green light for Israeli or perhaps even U.S. military action, an action one would assume the Iranians would not risk.
Another concern cited by critics is that now that the reactor is operational, any military action taken against the facility becomes much more difficult given the likelihood of a Chernobyl-style dispersion of radiation. Given the reported continuing Russian presence at the site, military action already is already unlikely, given that the last thing Israel would likely want to do is kill Russian scientists and technicians that are working on a project that has been blessed by successive U.S. administrations of both political parties. Also, if Israel or the United States became convinced that Bushehr was being used as part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it is likely that either country could find a suitable way to disable the reactor without contaminating a large geographic area.
Despite the fact that Bushehr thus fails to meet the hype swirling around the weekend’s events, there are several lessons to be learned from the plant going online.
IIPA via Getty Images
David Ignatius appears to have been convinced that the Obama administration is deftly playing its Iran hand. I am not so easily persuaded, but I did see in Ignatius's report one thing worth praising: President Obama now appears to understand that the sanctions track is the diplomatic track.
There are basically three schools of thought regarding diplomatic engagement
with Iran. One school thinks the prospect is hopeless from the get-go and not
worth doing. I understand this school's pessimism -- for 30 years, anyone
betting that diplomacy with Iran would fail made money -- but I have not been
in this school because of its naiveté. That's right, naiveté. It is hardly
naïve about the intentions and stubbornness of the Iranian regime, but it is
naïve about everything else regarding American foreign policy options regarding
Iran. Everything else we might have to do with respect to Iran -- whether it is
the hawkish option of military strikes or the dovish option of learning to live
with an Iranian nuclear weapon -- is easier to do if we have thoroughly tried
and exhausted other diplomatic options. So pragmatism requires that we try
diplomatic engagement, even if pragmatism also leads us to be bearish about its
prospects for success.
The second school thinks that diplomatic engagement is hard but doable, provided that the United States faithfully makes ever larger concessions and offers ever larger carrots. This school believes that the Iranian regime has several times made sincere offers that belligerent Bush officials foolishly ignored or rejected. This school wanted Obama to reset Iranian relations and pursue an approach that began with unconditional carrots and only threatened vague and imprecise sticks should the Iranian regime reject U.S. concessions. The problem with this school is that it offers no hedge against Iranian negotiators pocketing the concessions, moving the bargaining space accordingly, and stringing out the negotiations while the Iranian nuclear weapons program inches ever closer to a fait accompli. Like the quest for the Holy Grail, the quest for Iranian moderates who would cut a deal was tantalizing and never-ending. Not surprisingly, this school ends up consistently arguing against applying sanctions, and instead proposes new concessions as the way out of diplomatic impasses. The best gimmick this school has in this regard is pretending that sanctions are the alternative to diplomacy rather than acknowledging that they are part and parcel of a robust diplomatic approach. Thus, second school apologists consistently argue "let's give diplomacy a chance and not pursue sanctions just yet," which is sort of like arguing "let's try to swim the English Channel but let's not use our legs just yet, let's wait until we are drowning first."
During the campaign, a careless answer to a gotcha question in a foreign policy debate put candidate Obama partially in the second school. When asked whether he would sit down for an unconditional face-to-face with Ahmadinejad, Obama gave the reflexive "if Bush is against it, I must be for it" answer and said yes. Hillary Clinton pounced. Under the onslaught of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, Obama doubled down on and elevated it to a pseudo-doctrine during the campaign: For Obama, diplomacy would mean unconditional face-to-face meetings with tyrants, without regard to diplomatic preparation or prospects for success.
Of course, once in office, the Obama administration had to retreat from that unsustainable position. Face-to-face meetings with the president are too precious to be granted without adequate diplomatic preparation -- without getting something guaranteed and up front. But they were stuck with enough of the ideology of this second school that they felt obligated to adopt the Bush carrots-and-sticks strategy on Iran with one crucial difference: sequence the carrots-and-sticks by leading with carrots and waiting a long time -- over a year -- before recognizing that it was time for sticks.
To my eyes, the praiseworthy piece of the latest report on Obama's thinking on Iran is that he has apparently now moved into the third school, where I have been hoping he would end up long ago. This third school thinks that diplomatic engagement is hard and only doable if the United States and our international allies have sufficient leverage over the Iranian regime. The necessary-but-not-sufficient condition for diplomatic success is for the Iranian regime to believe they are on a negative trajectory. The longer they delay, the worse things get for them; the deal they could get today is better than the deal they could get tomorrow. To borrow a hackneyed idea from the Cold War, diplomatic engagement means first setting the conditions so that the correlation of world forces runs against the Iranian regime -- and that they perceive this to be the case. To be sure, this must be done deftly so that the Iranian regime does not grow so pessimistic that it launches its own preventive military strike. The deftness requires consistently offering a plausible set of carrots that would change the trajectory in a positive direction, but ensuring that the Iranian regime sees those carrots as the alternative to their eroding status quo. All of this requires leverage.
There are many elements to establishing this leverage. For instance, reversing the negative trajectory in Iraq helped. Likewise, forging closer cooperation now among our Gulf allies who would be the most adversely affected by an Iranian nuclear weapon could further isolate the regime. But of greatest import, I believe, is activating what diplomats call the "pressure track" -- meaning ratcheting up the economic pain that the Iranian regime is suffering -- and doing so before, or in tandem with, offering carrots.
For diplomacy to work, the Iranian regime has to confront the choice of sticks-now-but-carrots-in-the-future-if-they-get-onside. This is the opposite of the second school, which offers the choice of carrots-now-but-sticks-in-the-future-if-they-stay-offside. The third school's approach has a higher chance of success because it tightens with time. The more the Iranian regime dithers, the more pain it experiences.
The approach also is slightly less vulnerable to mischief from weakly committed partners on the U.N. Security Council (such as the Russians and Chinese) who consistently drag their heels on sticks and demand that more time be given to carrots. The third school hedges against this weakness by offering the Russian and Chinese this bargain: in exchange for the United States offering more carrots to Iran, you must first ratchet up the sanctions. Russian and Chinese cooperation will always be the Achilles heel of any Iranian strategy, but our best shot requires prioritizing their sticks over our carrots, and taking advantage of every opportunity to further that priority.
The Obama administration squandered the best opportunity they had in this regard -- the smoking gun evidence of Iranian cheating on uranium enrichment, which the administration dramatically revealed last September. At that moment, the optimal strategy would have been to seize the temporary diplomatic advantage in the Security Council, push for immediate sanctions, and then re-launch the various offers of carrots and concessions. Instead, Obama, perhaps still under the sway of the second school' thinking, re-launched the carrots and concessions.
The predictable (and predicted) result was diplomatic failure and a full year was lost. Now the Obama administration has belatedly started to apply the approach advocated by the third school. It may well be too late now, but it is still worth trying.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
Is the "China Fantasy" starting to get deflated by reality? Three years ago, Jim Mann's provocative book of that title identified the "China Fantasy" as the dogmatic belief of many Western political and commercial elites that China's economic liberalization and growth would lead inevitably to democracy at home and responsible conduct abroad. The operative word was "inevitably" -- the assumption being that China's remarkable economic success would automatically produce a middle class that demanded greater political rights, and that China's growing integration with the global economy would produce benign and responsible international behavior. Based on this assumption, the corollary policy prescription for the West was to pursue a policy of engagement and encouragement towards China's rise.
This paradigm seems to be shifting. I recently participated in a conference in Europe on China, attended by a cross-section of policy, academic, and commercial leaders from Europe, the United States, and China, and came away struck by palpable attitude changes in at least three dimensions. Taken together, these are signposts that the previous conventional wisdom on China is coming under question:
The erosion of the "China fantasy" does not mark from a precise date, but a watershed moment ironically may have been the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Anticipated as China's grand arrival on the global stage, the Olympics were by many measures a major success -- and not just for people named "Michael Phelps." Yet surrounding the Olympics were constant reminders of Beijing's authoritarianism, whether the petulant rhetorical attacks on Tibet supporters, the draconian efforts at pollution reduction, the omnipresent surveillance, and the tight control on any voices of dissent. Put it this way -- as obnoxious are those %&*!@ vuvuzelas at the World Cup, they are also the sound of a free society. You can bet they would have been banned in Beijing.
The end of the "China fantasy" does not necessarily prescribe a wholesale shift in the free world's posture towards China -- just a more realistic one. For the United States, this has several policy implications:
None of this precludes continued bilateral cooperation with China on important issues, or continued support for sound investment in such a vast market. The "China fantasy" was based more on hope than experience, but the benefit of recent experiences with state capitalism is the chance to replace hope with prudence.
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The U.N. Security Council today passed resolution 1929 attaching further sanctions to Iran for pursuance of nuclear programs condemned by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Obama administration is doing its best to put a good face on a major disappointment: After sixteen months' effort, they have succeeded in delivering less international support than did the Bush administration for a problem everyone agrees is growing rapidly worse.
Sanctions have been the centerpiece of the Obama administration's approach. Secretary Clinton proclaimed last summer we would coalesce the international community around "crippling sanctions." President Obama more recently reaffirmed that sanctions would be "significant." Yet the sanctions outlined in Resolution 1929 are so modest that even the White House sounded sheepish in its announcement of the resolution's passage:
The resolution reaffirms the international community's willingness to resolve international concerns over Iran's nuclear program through negotiations, while laying out the steps that Iran must take to restore international confidence in its nuclear program, thereby allowing for the suspension or termination of these sanctions.
The Resolution does show the handiwork of Stuart Levy's superb team at the Department of Treasury: the Iranian Central Bank is mentioned, companies linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are cited, and the lead scientist in the Iranian nuclear program is listed by name. But even though the number of entities ostensibly affected is twice that previously listed in U.N. resolutions, Tehran should be celebrating all it achieved.
Russia's vote was bought by exempting Russian firms from the restrictions. President Putin has announced the Bushehr reactor will come on line with Russia's continued assistance this summer. Russian Parliamentarian Mikhail Margelov, Head of the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee even said the deal will permit deployment of S-300 missile systems to Iran, which the Untied States has worked for years to prevent. All this in addition to canceling NATO missile defense deployments and going silent on the strangulation of freedoms within Russia.
Turkey and Brazil voted against the resolution, Lebanon abstained. A treaty ally of the United States whose territory borders on Iran, and which President Obama visited to showcase his new approach to the so-called muslim world could not be persuaded by the Obama Administration to cast its vote with us.
And the Administration seems to have no strategy for what to do next. Sanctions aren't a strategy, they're a tool for achieving the strategic objective of preventing Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. We're over-reliant on sanctions to deliver that weighty objective and need to be thinking much more creatively about how to impose costs on the Iranian government -- internationally and domestically -- for their choices.
When pressed to accede to his country being ruled by Macedonia, the Greek statesman Demosthenes refused, saying "I do not purchase regret at such a price." It could be that the Security Council Resolution will do the trick and Tehran will reconsider its current course. But I doubt it. It seems instead that we have purchased regret at the price of re-establishing Russian cooperation with Iran's nuclear and missile programs, demonstrating our inability to deliver both a NATO ally and an increasingly important rising power, and revealing that we have no cards to play except enfeebled sanctions.
Supporters of the Obama administration's "reset" policy toward Russia tout the New START Treaty, Russian support for sanctions against Iran, transit for Afghanistan across Russian territory, and cooperation in dealing with North Korea and non-proliferation more broadly as the fruits of its success. National Security Advisor Jim Jones cites the reset as one of the main successes in the administration's foreign policy (that, to some, says a lot about its overall foreign policy). There is no denying the vastly improved tone and rapport between the American and Russian presidents compared to the end of the Bush-Putin days. But before people get too carried away, let's focus on two recent developments that remind us of the challenges we face in dealing with Russia.
On May 31, Russian authorities brutally broke up opposition protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg and arrested more than 100 people. A journalist participating in the protest suffered a severely broken arm at the hands of the police. The U.S. National Security Council spokesman issued a statement expressing "regret" at the detention of peaceful protestors ("condemn" would have been a more appropriate verb -- we "regret," for example, the recent death of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky). While violent suppression of demonstrations is nothing new for Russian authorities, what makes this latest example noteworthy is that it happened just days after an American delegation went to Russia for the second round of the Civil Society Working Group co-chaired by NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul and Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov.
When this working group was first announced last July during President Obama's visit to Moscow, I argued that having Surkov as the chair was comparable to putting Chechnya's brutal leader Ramzan Kadyrov in charge of a working group on stabilizing the North Caucasus. The choice of Surkov, the brains behind "sovereign democracy" (the concept that justifies the regime's crackdown on political opponents) was widely condemned by Russian human rights activists who wrote to Medvedev urging that he be removed from this working group. The U.S. side argued that it had no veto authority over the choice of Russian co-chairs of the various bilateral working groups, but in this case, it would have been better to have nixed the civil society working group than to have had Surkov leading it.
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
The end of the NonProliferation Treaty Review conference provides an opportunity to
assess how well President
Obama's "Yes, But" strategy is working. My provisional assessment:
not as well as I might have hoped.
Recall that Obama's foreign policy efforts of the past 16 months can be summarized as one long effort to neutralize the talking points of countries unwilling to partner more vigorously with the United States on urgent international security priorities (like countering the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program).
Despite a determined and focused effort at forging effective multilateralism, the Bush administration enjoyed only mixed success on the thorniest problems. The Obama team came in believing that more could have been achieved if the United States had made more concessions up front to address the talking points of complaints/excuses would-be partners offered as rationalizations for not doing more. Yes, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a problem, but what about Israel's? The Bush administration tended to view these talking points skeptically as a distraction and was not willing to pay much of a price in order to buy a rhetorical marker to offer in rebuttal. By contrast, the Obama Administration embraced them and devoted themselves to buying markers to deploy in response: Yes, but we have gone further than any other U.S. administration effort to publicly delegitimize the nuclear program of our ally Israel, so what about it, why don't you do more to help us on Iran?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is talking tough on Iran. Despite allowing the Iranian government to escape sanction for a year of not accepting sugar-coated Western deadlines to abandon their nuclear program, and doing nothing about discovery of another nuclear plant at Qom, Team Obama is suddenly making an awful lot of noise.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's memo requesting White House guidance to further defense planning leaks, characterized as a wake up call for identifying military activity that could be taken against Iran. The national security advisor rebuts the characterization as a routine part of their 15 months of activity "successfully building a coalition of nations to isolate Iran and pressure it to live up to its obligations." Secretary Gates personally reinforces that view. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes (i.e., Presidential speechwriter -- since when did they become commentators of record on military options?) gets sent out to mop up any misunderstandings the hapless Jim Jones might have left. Admiral Mullen's Chairman's Guidance is revealed to task planning for "limited results" strikes on Iran. A prominent scientist who defected is publicly identified (picture in the newspaper) as an intelligence coup. The director of national intelligence publicly explains the national intelligence estimate on Iran has been delayed these six months because we suddenly have enormous streams on intelligence coming to us from disgruntled Iranian "technocrats." When the undersecretary of defense for policy tells a conference in Singapore military options are "not on the table in the near term," the secretary of defense personally refutes her statement. A senior administration official states the United States will not allow Iran to even acquire a "weapons capability," much less a weapon. Secretary Gates publicly questions whether it is possible to verify the difference between capability and weapon, suggesting the administration's threshold for action is actually more restrictive than Iran crossing the nuclear threshold.
And yet it is patently clear that destroying the Iranian nuclear program is not on the table for the Obama administration. All the hubbub has the feel of an orchestrated attempt to look like Washington is doing something when Washington is doing nothing -- they are covering their retreat into a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. I hope I'm wrong, but it would appear the Obama administration wants very much to look like the pincers of their strategy are closing in on Iran precisely because they have taken military force off the table, can't get the "crippling sanctions" Secretary Clinton trumpeted, and just held a summit meeting on nuclear proliferation that said nothing about Iran or North Korea's nuclear programs.
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Sunday's New York Times had a bombshell leak about a memo Secretary Gates circulated in January regarding the Administration's floundering Iran strategy. The leak prompted a vigorous push-back from the administration. "Nothing to see here" was the official response; or, as the NSC strategic communications czar Ben Rhodes put it, "It is absolutely false that any memo touched off a reassessment of our options."
For my part, I found the original leak more reassuring than the administration's efforts at damage control, even though as a general rule I think leaks like this are bad for policymaking. The original story had Gates warning his administration counterparts in January that their Iran strategy was failing and that they needed to scrutinize more carefully military contingency options. I am fairly confident the NYT reporters had that part of the story right; the reporters (David Sanger and Thom Shankar) are very high caliber and, as they point out in their own follow-up story, no one in the administration could point to specific examples of anything mischaracterized in the original article. More to the point, what is alleged to be in the Gates memo is true, almost inarguably so: after a year of patient effort, President Obama's Iran strategy was failing and showed little prospect of actually deflecting the Iranian nuclear trajectory. At that time, the administration's Plan A of unconditional outreach to Iran had clearly failed, the administration was walking back from its stated Plan B of "crushing sanctions," and many observers were beginning to talk about Plan C as "learning to live with the Iranian bomb."
So the original story amounted to this: the most impressive member of President Obama's Cabinet sent around a memo describing fairly and accurately the perilous condition of one of the administration's most important national security initiatives. I can understand why the administration didn't like the story, but I would have been far more worried if the story was untrue.
The leak, though damaging, may not be as damaging to the Iran strategy as the administration's damage-control efforts are likely to be. The urgent priority (and stated goal of Obama's policy) now is to ramp up as much diplomatic/economic pressure as possible on the Iranian regime in a last ditch effort to shift the Iranian regime's decision-making calculus in the direction of a peaceful diplomatic resolution. Diplomacy would have had a better shot at succeeding if the administration had intensified the pressure track last September, but better late than never.
The Chinese and to a lesser extent the Russians are dragging their heels on this pressure track for reasons that my Foreign Policy colleague Steve Walt rightly says come straight out of Realism 101: China is not as worried about the Iranian bomb as we are and would like to curry favor with the Iranians to keep its privileged access to Iranian oil and natural gas. The implication of this (and what Walt fails to note) comes straight out of Realism 201: the only way to dissuade China from this foot-dragging course is to convince the Chinese that their dilatory tactics are driving the United States (or others) to reconsider the military option. The original NYT leak revealed that this was exactly what was happening back in January. If the Chinese take that seriously, then there is some hope for diplomacy.
If, on the other hand, the Chinese listen only to the damage-control spin, they may get the idea that the administration still believes that its 2009 Iran strategy has legs and that no reassessment was done or warranted. In that case, why should the Chinese get on side? They likely won't and we can expect watered down sanctions that will have a low likelihood of success in pressuring Iran toward a peaceful resolution.
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This week's bad news on nuclear proliferation far outweighed the pleasant production values surrounding the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. But let's look at the good news first.
Representatives of 47 nations declared this week that nuclear terrorism is a bad possibility. They issued a communiqué to that effect and provided a non-binding work plan to counter "one of the most challenging threats to international security," as the communiqué characterized it. The White House blog was stronger, calling nuclear terrorism "the most dire threat of our time." The fact that the administration recognizes this is very welcome.
But such declarations are not new. The United States saw the problem immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and, under President Clinton, worked with Russia to safeguard nuclear material. The United Nations recognized the danger and in 2005 adopted by consensus the Convention for the Suppression of the Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. That extensive set of measures entered into force in 2007 and, by the end of last year, had been ratified and agreed by 59 nations, more than attended this summit. Both this week's communiqué and work plan recall that convention and call for its implementation.
Nothing in the work plan is binding beyond agreement to meet again in South Korea in 2012. The tentative wording of the plan often betrays its own ineffectual outcome. For example, it says:
Participating States encourage nuclear operators and architect/engineering firms to take into account and incorporate, where appropriate [emphasis added], effective measures of physical protection and security culture into the planning, construction, and operation of civilian nuclear facilities and provide technical assistance, upon request, to other States in doing so."
Is there somewhere it would be inappropriate to incorporate physical protection and safety culture into nuclear facilities? But at least the participants were able to agree that, for the most part, this is a good idea.
The other outcomes of the summit -- reiteration of a 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia on plutonium disposal, a fuzzy but positive step forward on Ukraine's disposal of nuclear materials, closure of a Russian nuclear facility that ceased production last year -- were all useful. They are, however, unlikely to achieve any real reduction in the risk of proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
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A slam against the Obama administration heard with greater frequency these days is that it is much harder on its allies than on its enemies (even former enemies). At the same time that it desperately tries to win over "new friends," the administration treats its old friends either with indifference (e.g., most of Europe) or a critical eye. A perfect example of this is the administration's handling of the recent blow-up with Israel over settlements in East Jerusalem as compared with its response to Russia's announcement last week on nuclear reactors in Iran.
There is no question that Israel deserved pushback for having its interior ministry announce during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden plans for additional housing in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was as surprised as Biden by the announcement, did not deserve the endless and condescending scolding from the Administration, however, including a 45-minute phone lecture from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Biden left Israel. Biden handled the response to the Israeli announcement quite well. Why then did Obama and Clinton think they needed to pile on? Do they not have confidence in the vice president? Indeed, it was rather shocking to see Obama administration condemnation of the Israelis continue for days and relations between the two countries reach their lowest point in years. Obama senior advisor David Axelrod went on the Sunday talk shows and called the Israeli move "destructive" and an "insult", even though the offense wasn't even committed by Netanyahu but by a Ministry official in the coalition government.
Fast forward to Moscow end of last week. On the day Clinton arrived in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian-built Bushehr reactor in Iran would be up and running this summer. Put aside the fact that Bushehr is well behind schedule as it is, the point here by Putin was to undercut U.S. efforts to present a unified position on Iran and embarrass the Secretary of State. Where was the firm U.S. response then?
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In its most recent report, the IAEA acknowledged what many observers have asserted for years -- that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. Whether this is the result of new evidence, or merely the willingness of the agency’s new director-general to heed the existing evidence, is beside the point. The findings will provide new impetus for a sanctions push that has been extensively foreshadowed over the last several months by leaders in the United States and Europe.
For the next tranche of sanctions to be successful, thought must be given not only to which measures are chosen, but how they are chosen. The instinct of policymakers in Europe and Washington is often to act incrementally; stronger sanctions are proposed, only to be diluted in U.N. negotiations aimed at unanimity. The measures that are ultimately adopted are usually just one step beyond the previous set.
This incremental approach is counterproductive. The sanctions’ predictability and long lead time allows Tehran to prepare for them in advance. For example, Iran is currently expanding its oil refining capacity and reducing consumption subsidies in anticipation of the sort of gasoline sanctions moving through Congress, and could be a net gasoline exporter by 2013. Incrementalism inures the Iranian regime to sanctions altogether, stripping of credibility any threats of tougher action in the future. The result is to rob sanctions of their deterrent effect and make extreme outcomes -- a nuclear-armed Iran, or war with Iran -- more rather than less likely.
The traditional approach also places too high a value on international consensus. While multilateral support is necessary to efforts to deter Iran, unanimity is not. Unanimity does not make weak sanctions more effective. Also, the unanimity achieved is often symbolic -- lowest-common denominator measures are supplemented by a “coalition of the willing” who shoulder greater sacrifice while others enthusiastically embrace whatever is not explicitly forbidden. For example, China National Petroleum Corporation (having taken the place of France’s Total SA) will begin the drilling phase of a major gas project in Iran in March, at the same moment the rest of the P5+1 begin their deliberations on sanctions. In this next round of sanctions deliberations, the price required of Beijing for its seat at the head diplomatic table must be that it accept its fair share of the responsibility for and cost of deterring Iran.
To avoid the trap of incrementalism and advance efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons progress, the U.S. and Europe must think backwards. That is, consider what circumstances must be brought about to induce a change of course by the Iranian regime, along with the time available to bring about such circumstances. A cursory analysis of past Iranian shifts suggests that the threshold at which the regime will recalculate remains far off -- Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1988 decision to accede to a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war, for example, came only after several Iranian naval ships were destroyed in battle with the U.S. Navy.
Thinking backwards leads to the conclusion that the regime’s resilience, and the urgency underscored by the IAEA report, should lead the West to eschew any gradual buildup of pressure for bolder, less predictable, and faster-acting measures. By implication, our international persuasion efforts should be focused less on means -- such as sanctions -- and more on ends. If an ally agrees that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, that its success in this regard would be devastating for global security, and that sufficient pressure must be brought to bear on the Iranian regime to force its recalculation, then reasoning backward will lead naturally support for far-reaching sanctions or similar measures. If on the other hand there is no such concurrence on objectives, then agreement on “crippling” sanctions is unlikely ever to materialize.
It is possible that a bolder approach to sanctions will signal to a skeptical Iranian regime that we are willing to endure much to derail its nuclear ambitions, and induce its leader to preemptively change his strategy. More ominously, a failure by the regime to do so may lead the international community to realize that no sanctions will be sufficient to divert Iran from its path.
The Obama administration's Iran policy in recent weeks has had a certain schizophrenic quality to it.
On the one hand, President Obama has played the role of cajoler in chief, stating last week that the door remains open to a deal with Tehran. On the other hand, Secretary of State Clinton has emerged as the administration's resident hardliner, calling the regime in Tehran a "military dictatorship" and throwing caution (and the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran) to the wind by referring to Iran's "nuclear weapons military program,"as if such a program was still ongoing. These are the sort of statements that Bush administration officials would have been crucified for by the press (with assistance from the U.S. intelligence community) in the wake of Iraq and the 2007 NIE.
While it is infuriating that this administration is being held to a different standard than the last, Secretary Clinton's statements have the added value of being correct. The latest evidence of this is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report about Iran's nuclear program, which was released on Thursday. It is the first report issued by Director General Yukiya Amano, who replaced Iran ally Mohamed ElBaradei late last year. The report, the strongest since the IAEA began issuing such reports about Iran's program in 2003, is remarkably frank about Iran's nuclear progress, a quality that observers could not easily find in the politicized reports issued by the IAEA during ElBaradei's tenure.
The report raises several troubling questions. It makes clear that Iran has successfully enriched a small amount of its low enriched uranium (LEU) up to roughly 20%. Some experts will argue that Iran has only enriched a small amount of LEU to this level and that they are doing so slowly but, according to the IAEA, Iran is taking steps that will allow its scientists at Natanz to enrich most of their existing stockpile of LEU to this level, which will result in much more fuel than they will ever need to run the Tehran Research Reactor, their stated purpose for this bold move given the collapse of the fuel swap deal Tehran supposedly agreed to in Geneva last year.
Just as troubling is that, despite the Washington Post report last week about centrifuge problems at Natanz, Iran continues to enrich at a steady pace -- the IAEA report shows that the total amount enriched to 3.5% was slightly higher than in previous reporting periods. They have installed a large number of centrifuges that have yet to be brought online, but while the Obama administration is trying to argue that this is a sign of potential problems, it also could be because the Iranians are likely beginning to run out of the feedstock for the centrifuges and they may want to stretch out their current supply, or they could intend to bring those centrifuges online at a key moment in the political dispute or they could intend to move the centrifuges to another facility, such as the one revealed last year that is still empty.
Perhaps most troubling of all is the IAEA's statement that certain weaponization activities may have continued beyond 2004. The type of work specifically mentioned is directly related to "development of a nuclear payload for a missile." Various press reports in recent months have suggested that Western intelligence agencies are concerned that the military program may have resumed after a brief halt in 2003 -- or may have never stopped. If this is true, the 2007 NIE will have been proven to be incorrect, capping an unfortunate decade for the U.S. intelligence community, a decade in which it struggled to strike a balance between jumping to conclusions based on single sources and being overly cautious in its assessments about covert WMD programs.
In sum, Iran is laying the groundwork required to eventually pursue a weapons capability on relatively short notice (the Institute for Science and International Security estimates that they would now only need six months using the LEU they have produced at Natanz) to produce enough HEU for a weapon. Thursday's IAEA report implies that they may not require significant additional work to produce the warhead itself. This timeline, of course, assumes they are not already producing LEU or highly enriched uranium (HEU) at a covert facility. Although some experts may quibble with the terminology, it appears that an incremental breakout is underway. The Iranians are methodically preparing the capabilities needed to produce a weapon, all the while suffering few consequences.
Last week, Iranian President Ahmadinejad masterfully used the nuclear program to deflect international attention away from the regime's own precarious situation. The limited international reaction to this serious Iranian act may send the message to Tehran that there redlines no longer exist.
Unless the Iranian regime is concerned that its actions will have repercussions, particularly those that threaten their grip on power, such as military action or greater Western support for the Green movement, they are likely to take additional steps to exploit this situation. The frightening takeaway from the IAEA report is that if Iran continues down this path, the international community will have very little time to stop them.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the surprising assertion yesterday in Doha that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not directly threaten the United States:
“[P]art of the goal -- not the only goal, but part of the goal -- that we were pursuing was to try to influence the Iranian decision regarding whether or not to pursue a nuclear weapon. And, as I said in my speech, you know, the evidence is accumulating that that's exactly what they are trying to do, which is deeply concerning, because it doesn't directly threaten the United States, but it directly threatens a lot of our friends, allies, and partners here in this region and beyond.”
Secretary Clinton is surely correct about the threat faced by U.S. allies in the region, but her assessment of the potential threat to the U.S. does not comport with the evidence on Iran’s ballistic missile programs. Many U.S. facilities and thousands of American personnel are of course already within range of Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair recently testified (pdf) are “inherently capable of delivering WMD.”
Furthermore, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency reported (pdf) this month that “Iran continue[s] to develop long-range ballistic missiles that will be threatening to the United States,” and the U.S. intelligence community has judged in the past that Iran may test an ICBM by 2015 (see here [pdf] for a full discussion of this issue). Iran last year demonstrated progress by successfully placing a satellite into orbit. At that time, the State Department spokesman issued a statement of “deep concern,” noting:
“Recently, Iran's development of a space launch vehicle (SLV) capable of putting a satellite into orbit establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems. Many of the technological building blocks involved in SLVs are the same as those required to develop long-range ballistic missiles.”
The Pentagon spokesman also noted the U.S. concerns over the development:
“It is certainly a reason for us to be concerned about Iran and its continued attempts to develop a ballistic missile program of increasingly long range. Although this would appear just to be the launch of a satellite, their first, obviously there are dual-use capabilities in the technology here which could be applied toward the development of a long-range ballistic missile.”
The spokesmen’s concerns were well-founded. Given the available facts, it is difficult to support the view that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not pose a direct threat to the United States.
Through her bloody death on June 20, 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, galvanized the Iranian opposition protests. But she was not the first woman to play an important role in promoting freedom, democracy, and equality in Iran. The Iranian women's movement has a proud history of fighting for women's rights and has been a driving force behind the green movement's push for reform. Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist of many years, has represented many other women fighting for justice. Women's groups like Mothers for Peace and the One Million Signatures Campaign are grassroots Iranian women's organizations promoting peace and gender equality in law and practice. For years now, members have been beaten, harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for their work.
Authorities have systematically denied women permits to hold peaceful protests and while pressure on women leaders was increasing even before the broader protests began in June 2009 things have deteriorated further since. Women human rights defenders like Shadi Sadr, a lawyer who has campaigned against stoning and Shiva Nazar Ahari, a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, as well as journalists and bloggers like Hengemeh Shahidi, Zhila Bani Yaghoub and a pregnant Mahsa Amr-Abadi were all arrested and imprisoned after the post-election protests began last June. Many other women from ethnic and religious minority groups have been detained and persecuted across the country after joining forces across ethnic and religious divides to stand for freedom.
My post here last month appealed to Secretary Clinton to emphasize human rights and freedom of expression in her speech on Internet freedom. She did and Iran was even highlighted. It was a good speech that also included the importance of online interaction for religious freedom. Secretary Clinton's longstanding support for women's issues is also well known. Iranian authorities censor dozens of websites and blogs, especially those covering women's issues, are disrupting communication technology today as protests mount, and have banned Google. They also severely persecute religious minorities, especially the Baha'i. Iran thus poses a diplomatic challenge as all the themes of the Secretary's speech come together there. But as protests are invigorated today, the United States must throw its support squarely behind the Iranian people, especially women seeking peaceful democratic change. This could be by making a strong and clear Presidential statement (or better yet an Obama webcast in Farsi), by naming and shaming perpetrators of the arrests, rape, and execution of political prisoners, or by turning some U.S. government websites green. Whatever is done, it's time to choose sides. One thing is certain. I'm voting green.
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Doves keep talking about the Iranian nuclear problem like it is a unilateralist Ungame, the game where you win by not seeking to win. It is better thought of as multilateralist chess.
Doves have argued that the primary obstacle to reaching a grand bargain with Iran has been the unwillingness of the United States to make a sufficiently generous offer. Doves believed that President Bush willfully ignored hopeful signs out of Iran and poisoned the well of negotiations by setting "unreasonable" conditions, for instance requiring that Iran pause its enrichment program while negotiating over the issue. Doves were encouraged by Obama's campaign critique of Bush on Iran and especially by his promise to sit down face-to-face with Iranian leaders to hammer out a deal. Doves take a unilateralist approach to the international coalition, focusing almost exclusively on U.S. concessions as the engine of their strategy. The dove position is remarkably immune to bad news out of Tehran. Whenever the Iranian regime spurns a U.S. offer, the problem can be pinpointed in the alleged unfairness of the offer -- unfair to Iran, that is. Be more generous, and the Iranians might play along. Whenever the Iranians are caught in a deceit, the doves propose a bold gambit of making further concessions to Iran as a way to capitalize on the momentum. Pushed to its logical conclusion, the dove position is an irrefutable tautology: If we are willing to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon, and we should be, then we can have a grand bargain with Iran and we can put this matter behind us. Like the Ungame, we only need to focus on moving our pieces and listening to others. Provided we don't really care about "winning," then the game is really quite simple.
If you do care about winning, where winning is defined as "Iran abandons its nuclear weapons program," then the game is better viewed as multilateral chess -- strategic interaction along several vectors with multiple players holding conflicting interests.
The most obvious vector is with Iran, which wants to keep its nuclear weapons program and wants all sorts of other goodies including keeping its support for global terrorism, gaining greater access to global markets, establishing a hegemonic position in the region, preserving regime stability, and so on. Our challenge is to set Iran's various desiderata in opposition with each other, raising the costs of the ones contrary to our interests and enhancing the benefits of the ones consonant with our interests, thereby inducing Iran into making compromises we can live with.
The only way we can do this, however, is by pursuing robust diplomacy, meaning credible offers of carrots simultaneous with imposition of sticks (what diplomats call the "pressure track"). By sticks, I mean non-military pressure, specifically multilateral economic sanctions; such sticks, by the way, are double-edged because they can also count as carrots -- "make a deal with us and we will lift the sanction." The sticks tweak the costs, the carrots tweak the benefits. If applied in sufficient measure, the strategic calculus might be influenced and a deal might be struck. However, our ability to influence the regime's strategic calculus depends heavily on the sticks side of the business and almost all of the sticks remaining to be played depend on the cooperation of others. This is why President Bush pursued a multilateral approach to Iran for many years, and for which he received considerable partisan abuse. Which brings us to the other vectors.
The next most important vector is with our European allies, who fervently want Iran to abandon its nuclear program and almost as fervently want the United States to shoulder the lion's share of the costs of achieving that goal. For a while, the Europeans embraced a good cop, bad cop approach (guess which role they wanted to play). For the last several years, however, the Europeans have leaned a bit further forward in favor of imposing sticks, but have insisted that they cannot do so without successive waves of authorizing U.N. Security Council resolutions. Which brings us to the next vector.
Additional Security Council resolutions can only be achieved with the cooperation of the Russians and the Chinese, who have a different conflict of interest with us. Neither particularly wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but both want all of the costs of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon to fall upon the United States and our European allies. The ideal situation from the Russian/Chinese point of view is a final deal which Iran accepts but which permanently orients Iran towards Russia-China outreach rather than towards the West. This conflict of interests is so profound it is almost irreconcilable except for one vital point: Russia and China want least of all a situation in which a nuclear negotiation deadlock collapses into military conflict. The challenge, therefore, is to convince the Russians and the Chinese that if they cooperate in imposing multilateral pressure on Iran, thus giving diplomacy a chance, they can help forestall a resort to force; but if they do not, they increase the likelihood of a U.S. (or an Israeli) resort to force. Hence the need to keep the military option on the table while also demonstrating a credible desire for a non-military solution. Structured this way, Russian and Chinese cooperation buy a peaceful resolution and Russian and Chinese free-riding hastens an undesirable military outcome. (Note, substitute Europe for Russia and China in the preceding sentences and you have a fair description of our challenge in 2005-2006. The Europeans have moved closer to the United States since then, in part through the deft diplomacy of the Bush and then Obama Administrations, and in part through the daft diplomacy of the Iranians.)
This multilateral chess game is so daunting that the failure of the Obama team (and before them the Bush team) to win it is hardly an indication of strategic incompetence. But there have been avoidable missteps. The Bush team made a bold offer to Iran in May 2006, but did not maximize the leverage from that offer with sufficiently dramatic and concurrent steps, such as a major Presidential speech and letter directed over the heads of the regime and to the Iranian people, posting the details of the offer so the world (and critics) could see how generous it was, and seeking a simultaneous increase in economic pressure deferring instead to the European request to try out the carrots before imposing additional sticks. The Obama team fixed the publicity mistake, but repeated the mistake of first-carrots-then-sticks sequencing. They also added some mistakes of their own. The Obama team was slow to capitalize on the domestic turmoil inside Iran after the widespread election fraud. The failure to wield this pressure lever has caused even erstwhile doves to shift to a more hawkish position. An even more profound misstep -- and one that has garnered far less attention -- was the decision to treat sticks as an alternative to diplomacy rather than acknowledging that they are a crucial component that makes diplomacy work. As a result, they have delayed the sticks far past the time when they could have maximum effect. Thus, Obama played an ace card in September -- the evidence that the Iranian regime had systematically deceived the IAEA on a uranium enrichment program -- but did not push for sticks at that time. Each self-declared declared deadline was missed, and each promised response was further delayed. Now we are well into 2010 and the pressure track is barely further advanced from where it was 6 months ago.
I was never very optimistic that the Iranian nuclear saga would end well. I am a bit less optimistic today. The best hope for success now appears to be with the Iranian people. If they seize the moment to change the trajectory of Iran, they could fundamentally alter the calculations of the Iranian regime. Tomorrow, on the 31st anniversary of the last time the Iranian people dramatically changed the trajectory of their country, we will get a sense of how likely that is.
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Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky opens his book The Case for Democracy with a revealing anecdote:
As my wife, Avital, was demonstrating outside a superpower summit in Geneva at the end of 1985, President Reagan, pointing at her, turned to Gorbachev and said: 'You keep saying that Sharansky is an American spy, but my people trust that woman. And as long as you keep him and other political prisoners locked up, we will not be able to establish a relationship of trust.'"
Elsewhere in the book, Sharansky recalls the time during his imprisonment when he and his fellow prisoners learned that Reagan had called the Soviet Union an "evil empire":
Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan's ‘provocation' quickly spread through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth -- a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us."
Though there are manifest dissimilarities between the Soviet Union of the 1980s and Iran of today, Sharansky's memoir has some helpful insights for Iran's current crucible. This week brings news that the Iranian Government will be elevating its uranium enrichment levels to 20 percent (along with their customary head-fake about possible conciliation). The regime's announcement is also a transparent, and likely futile, ploy to try to steal the initiative from the green movement as it prepares this week to mark the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution with large protests demanding democratic reform.
In at least three respects, the lessons from Sharansky and Reagan might be relevant here. First, it is a standard part of the playbook of dictatorial regimes to accuse their dissidents of being tools of the West. While Western governments need to act with prudence and be mindful of local conditions, the tiresome canard of being "American agents" should not deter principled support for human rights activists. Second, Reagan demonstrated that nuclear negotiations do not have to be separated from human rights, but can be linked together, particularly when both are connected to the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the regime. Third, Western support -- even just rhetorical support -- for dissidents can be encouraging and even game-changing in assuring them that they are not alone. Hence the joy among Sharansky's fellow inmates on learning of Reagan's words; hence the chants of Iranian protestors "Obama, Obama -- either with us, or with them!"
As Jeff Gedmin and others have reported, the green movement itself is diverse and diffuse, with secular and religious elements, pro and anti-American elements, no clear position on the nuclear program, and no single leader. But that makes its resilience all the more noteworthy, and its demands more unifying: an accountable government that serves, rather than oppresses, its citizens.
So as this potentially historic week unfolds in Iran, here's an idea for the White House and State Department: how about turning a section of your official websites green on Feb. 11? This would be a simple yet memorable way to add some spice to what will hopefully be official statements of support for the green movement from President Obama and Secretary Clinton. And it is a gesture that could quickly be replicated around the world, by other governments such as the U.K., France, and Germany, as well as by think-tanks, NGOs, and anyone else who wants to express solidarity with the cause of freedom in Iran. We at the Legatum Institute will be turning our website green. And to make sure that Iranian reformers know of such international support, the good folks at Radio Farda will be broadcasting, streaming, posting, and using all manner of multi-media to bypass Tehran's censorship and get the word out.
The Obama administration's foreign policy has hit some rough patches as of late, and much of the international scene probably appears more forbidding than welcoming. Which is all the more reason to recapture momentum, show international moral leadership and launch a new "green initiative" -- by displaying clear and creative support for the reform movement in Iran this week.
As we witnessed recently with the questioning of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair by the Chilcot inquiry, the debate over the war in Iraq is one that raises many issues and can be expected to continue for some time to come. But one issue, raised by my fellow FP blogger, Tom Ricks in a recent post, deserves some critical attention here: his contention that removing Saddam Hussein from power strengthened Iran by removing an Iraqi "bulwark" against Persian expansionism.
Ricks' assertion is one that is oft-repeated but fundamentally mistaken. It is over-charitable to Saddam, who -- having invaded Kuwait, threatened Saudi Arabia, and harshly repressed Iraqis -- was no protector of his neighbors. And it is unfair to the current government of Iraq, which is not a client of Tehran's or passive in the face of Iranian bellicosity.
More importantly, however, the notion that our approach to regional security should be based on supporting a regime like Saddam's as a foil to Tehran should be rejected. We can pursue other more effective and more palatable means of countering Iran's threats, and indeed are pursuing them, as recent reporting in the Washington Post and elsewhere bears witness. In this regard, the Obama administration should hold firm on two important objectives. First, success in Iraq: one of the most potent blows to the Iranian regime, currently struggling against its own loss of legitimacy domestically, would be the emergence of a pluralistic and prosperous democracy in Shia-majority Iraq. Second, an unwavering policy of prevention toward Iran: that is, stressing that we remain determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, rather than resigned to their doing so and focused instead on future "containment."
In one respect, however, Ricks is correct -- the Iranian regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism pose a threat to the entire region, and countries of the region would be wise to work cooperatively to counter this threat. One of the trickiest issues in the way of a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace is security; to date, the perceived zero-sum tradeoff between Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty has proven unmanageable. The convergence in recent decades of threat perceptions in the region offers the opportunity for mutually beneficial approaches to the security issue which should not be neglected. Looking forward, it is such regional cooperation that will form the real "bulwark" against emerging threats, whether from Iran, terrorist networks, or elsewhere.
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
policy headline of the State of the Union speech is how far the president went
to avoid generating a national security headline. In one of the longest
of recent SOTU's, the president's speechwriters devoted some of the shortest
space and least consequential language to national security.
The only national security news item was buried deep in a paragraph, masked with oblique language: the proposal to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Getting a Congress battered by health care and cap-and-trade to take up this controversial issue in an election year may require a larger expenditure of presidential political capital than Obama allotted in this one speech.
Most telling was the attempt to spin the Iran situation. Obama's Iran strategy has stalled. The diplomatic overtures, spurned. The international coalition, frayed and paralyzed. Even ardent supporters of Obama's Iran gambits are saying enough is enough. Most experts believe that 2010 will be the year of decision on Iran. Nothing in the SOTU speech hints that Obama's advisors are girding to prepare Americans and our partners for that debate.
This will be a very consequential year for U.S. foreign policy, but little of that is foreshadowed in this speech.
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President Obama starts 2010 with a crowded agenda for his second year in office. His greatest challenge this year will be turning his rhetoric about a world free of nuclear weapons into reality.
Despite having spent much of 2009 pursuing a follow-up agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Obama has little to show for his abandonment of U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and other steps taken as part of his "reset" of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Instead, Russia has drawn out negotiations on a treaty that President Obama said in July 2009 "would be completed this year." Even if he and his Russian counterpart wrap up an agreement in the coming months, its fate in the Senate remains uncertain. In addition to his problems reaching a follow-up to START, Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) does not appear imminent. Posing perhaps the greatest challenge to the president's disarmament agenda in 2010 will be the actions of Iran and North Korea. Obama has bolstered his disarmament agenda by arguing that U.S. nuclear reductions and ratification of treaties like the CTBT will somehow convince Iran and North Korea to forgo their nuclear ambitions. In reality, Iran may go nuclear in the near future, setting off a wave of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. North Korea has rebuffed all Obama administration attempts to lure it back to the negotiating table and may be proliferating its nuclear wares to other rogue regimes.
President Obama spent 2009 talking about disarmament and pursuing engagement with rogue regimes. If he wants to rescue his disarmament agenda in 2010, he should focus less on the supposed threat posed by the U.S. nuclear deterrent and more on the real problem -- the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang.
What should be the Obama administration's
focus in the Middle East for Year Two? For me, it's a no-brainer: consolidating
success in Iraq and supporting democratic change in Iran.
Iraq is at an important crossroads. Things could go very well in 2010 or they could begin to unravel. There's no doubt that President Obama's artificially imposed August timeline for removing all U.S. combat troops has introduced an unnecessary element of added uncertainty to the mix, and will serve as an accelerant of instability.
That said, the process remains manageable if balanced by steady progress in the political, economic, diplomatic, and security spheres, mainly: 1) Another free and fair parliamentary election that, without excessive delay, produces a reasonably competent national government; 2) The start of a serious campaign to deliver basic services, attract foreign investment, and generate jobs and economic growth for the Iraqi people; 3) Iraq's further integration into its own neighborhood; and 4) The continued strengthening of the Iraqi security services. All these tasks remain seriously challenging, but eminently achievable -- especially if buttressed by deep, consistent American engagement, led by Obama himself, that reflects an appreciation for Iraq's critical importance to the Persian Gulf region and the enormous long-term benefits that would accrue from an effective U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership.
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As engagement with Iran gained political momentum in the United States during the 2008 presidential campaign, some of its advocates were quick to cite the analogy of Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China in portraying outreach to Tehran as a similarly bold policy stroke. The experience of the past year, which has seen Iran's leaders crack down at home and spurn outreach from the West, has exposed the superficiality of this comparison. As political scientist Michael Mandelbaum has observed, Chairman Mao was motivated, after all, not by American charm but by Soviet belligerence. China in the early 1970s had recently lost a border war to the USSR and faced a Soviet army massing on its border, pushing it into Washington's arms. The Iranian regime, on the other hand, has been eager to keep America at arm's length.
With negotiations with Iran making frustratingly little progress and hopes for strong international sanctions restrained by the reality of Chinese and Russian reluctance, a new analogy is gaining traction in U.S. national security circles -- containment. Its enthusiasts liken America's Cold War containment of the Soviet Union to the hypothetical containment of a nuclear Iran in the future. Just like the Nixon-to-China comparison, however, the containment analogy is fatally flawed.
Those who argue in favor of containment generally have in mind nuclear deterrence -- that is, preventing Iran from actually using a nuclear weapon. And history suggests that they have a point -- no nuclear power besides the United States has ever employed the bomb, and a combination of missile defenses and a declaratory policy promising retaliation could prove powerful deterrents to Iran doing so. While we should not count too heavily on the Iranian regime's rationality -- its officials have, after all, mused about destroying Israel -- neither should we exaggerate the likelihood that Iran would initiate a nuclear conflict that would prove its own demise.
The possibility that it would use a nuclear weapon is, however, only the beginning of the dangers that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose. Of perhaps greater concern is that Iran would transfer its nuclear know-how to other countries or, far more alarming, to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. This scenario is not far-fetched -- nuclear powers have regularly transferred their technology to others, and Iran in particular has been generous in sharing advanced military hardware with its proxies, like the advanced rocketry employed by Hezbollah against Israel or IEDs used by Iraqi insurgents against American troops. Even if they were denied the ultimate weapons by Tehran, these groups would surely feel emboldened under its nuclear umbrella to step up their activities against Western and Arab interests.
Added to this danger is the likelihood that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would fundamentally change the security landscape in the Middle East. Iran's neighbors would be faced with a grim choice -- pursue a nuclear weapons capability of their own, or resign themselves to Iranian hegemony for the foreseeable future. Given their longstanding mistrust of Tehran, it is likely that those which could pursue the nuclear path would do so. Such a development would leave the United States not simply to contain a nuclear-armed Iran, but to manage a broadly nuclearized Middle East and its implications for the already-shaky global nonproliferation regime. These are threats against which even the most advanced missile defense or the strongest declaratory policy afford no protection.
The victory of the United States and its allies over the Soviet Union was a historic success, but not an unqualified one, and certainly not a costless one. The containment of the Soviets required massive overseas military deployments and two major military conflicts. While the USSR did not use nuclear weapons, it transferred nuclear technology to other states, the consequences of which trouble us greatly to this day. What's more, the United States and Western Europe were left with little recourse as the Eastern bloc fell under Soviet sway and human rights and economic progress were stamped out for five decades.
This is not the sort of success we should hope for against Iran. As the Obama administration weighs how best to respond to Iran's continued nuclear defiance and its repression of a courageous opposition, "containment" should be crossed off the list of policy options.
By John Hannah
On Jan. 12, several agents from the Islamic Republic's intelligence ministry raided the home of Mohammed Taqi Khalaji. They took Khalaji into custody and confiscated his computer, satellite receiver, and hundreds of notes, books and personal letters. The agents also seized the passports of Khalaji and members of his family, banning them all from leaving the country. Khalaji's family does not currently know where he is being detained and Iranian authorities are refusing to provide any information.
Khalaji is a prominent cleric in Qom, the center of Iranian Shiism. Since June 12, he has been a courageious critic of the Iranian regime's crackdown on peaceful protests and a supporter of the so-called Green Movement. Khalaji was known to be close to Iran's most prominent dissident cleric, the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, and is an ally of Ayatollah Sanei -- another well-known reformist cleric who has come under whithering attack from the regime following the massive Ashura demonstrations of Dec. 28. Clearly, Khalaji's arrrest is of a piece with the Islamic Republic's escalating -- though so far miserably unsuccessful -- efforts to crush all signs of peaceful opposition. Khalaji now joins hundreds, if not thousands, of other brave Iranians dragged from their homes and illegally detained for exercising their most fundamental rights of citizenship.
Mohammed Taqi also happens to be the father of my wonderful Washington Institute colleague, Mehdi Khalaji. A former Shia theologian himself, Mehdi is today one of America's leading scholars on Iran, a true national treasure -- as anyone who has read his work can attest. He is a man brimming with learning, decency, and a deep love for and dedication to the well-being of his homeland and the Iranian people. It is difficult not to suspect that the regime's attack on his father was not designed as a foreboding message to Mehdi as well, an effort to use the long arm of the Islamic Republic to intimidate and silence an eloquent and insightful observer who knows this rotting system from the inside.
Iran's Green Movement could well turn out to be the most important social development within the Islamic world in the last 100 years -- a truly grass roots, mass movement that is peacefully demanding democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and reconciliation with the outside world. In recent weeks, several commentators have suggested that the time has come for the Obama administration to move to the next phase of its efforts to support the long-suffering Iranian people, by putting actual names to the growing list of brave souls who -- solely because of deep concern for their great nation, beloved countrymen and the good name of Islam -- have fallen victim to the Islamic Republic's growing viciousness. The name of Mohammed Taqi Khalaji would be a good place to start.
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By Will Inboden
President Obama deserves our support for his wise and courageous decision on America's Afghanistan policy. Embracing the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus and its corresponding substantial military force increase of 30,000 troops was a laudable act of principle, especially considering the tepid support among the general American public and the outright opposition of most Democrats. As Peter Feaver and many others have observed, Obama's speech itself was rather anemic and an inartful reminder of the political calculations and ambivalence which color his national security policy as he continues to grapple with embracing his role as a wartime president. But when it came to the hard crucible of making the decision, in this vital case he did the right thing.
There are many others who can comment on the details of the new policy and what it might mean for Afghanistan. But almost as important is how the rest of the world will perceive the new policy. In a column last week, Roger Cohen cited an observation by Henry Kissinger that "[Obama] reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games. But he hasn't completed a single game and I'd like to see him finish one."
While the Afghanistan board is far from complete, in this case the President has made an audacious new move. To pick up on the Kissinger chessboard analogy (and to invoke a favorite geopolitical theme of Kissinger's), the six games are not being played separately but rather are all linked to each other. A move on one board often will carry significant ramifications for the state of play on the other boards, and will send important signals to the opposing players on each board.
So what are the messages that Obama's speech sends to other important parts of the world, including ones where he has taken new steps?
To the nations of western Europe, the new policy shows a willingness to try to lead public opinion (and not just follow it) for a mission vital to national security, and to make a substantial troop deployment committed to taking the fight to the enemy. In light of the unwillingness thus far of many NATO members to increase their force deployments in Afghanistan, and the reluctance of some to even let their troops engage in combat, this is significant. Since European public opinion still remains largely opposed to the war in Afghanistan but the new strategy calls for another 5,000 NATO troops, President Obama might want to consider deploying his own considerable popularity by making a similar speech in Europe urging more force contributions from NATO members. Perhaps when he travels to Oslo next week to accept his Nobel Peace Prize?
To China, where in the wake of Obama's recent trip the government in Beijing may be questioning his general resolve, the new policy demonstrates an ability to make hard choices that risk his reputation and carry real costs. It also reinforces for Beijing that south and central Asia remain regions of profound strategic interest to the United States. These will be helpful reminders for China as the Obama Administration continues to press it to play a constructive role on other priority issues such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
To Iran, where the Obama administration faces an acute challenge on the nuclear program, the policy demonstrates a willingness to use force if necessary to protect America's security interests. Ironically, it is sometimes just this type of willingness that strengthens diplomatic efforts and renders the use of force itself unnecessary.
To India (from where I write this week), the policy displays a renewed commitment to an American presence in a troubled region, and to finishing hard tasks. But as numerous Indian policy leaders privately said today, the announced date of July 2011 to begin troop withdrawals undercuts this message and renews fears of American fickleness, of the type that led to American disengagement from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s, with disastrous results. David Ignatius today called this "the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision -- the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it."
To Pakistan, the new policy will hopefully signal to government and citizens alike that the United States is committed to defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and to the sustained promotion of stable, secure, and free self-government in the region. This should give Pakistanis the additional assurance and incentives they need to make the right choices to side against jihadism and with efforts for reform, development, and responsible governance. Though again, in Pakistani minds these incentives might be mitigated by fears of the July 2011 drawdown date and yet another case of U.S. abandonment.
The hardest days in Afghanistan lie ahead, and the Obama administration will face grave challenges and choices in many other areas, some known and others unknown. But at this point at least, Obama has decided on a policy that is best for American security interests not only in Afghanistan but in other places around the globe.
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By Jamie M. Fly
The events of the past week pose a challenge to President Obama's vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Last week in Vienna, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met to discuss Iran and Syria's continued stonewalling of IAEA investigations into illicit nuclear activities carried out by each country.
On November 16, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei submitted reports on both countries to the members of the Board. His report on Iran was perhaps the strongest IAEA report on Iran to date. It found that Iran violated its safeguards obligations by not reporting the existence of a covert enrichment facility near Qom. The report also noted that Iran continues to not cooperate with the IAEA's investigation into Iran's pre-2003 covert weaponization program. It was a damning final report from ElBaradei, who retired at the end of last week having spent much of his twelve years at the helm of the IAEA trying to cajole the Iranians into coming clean, often undermining U.S. and Western efforts to pressure in the process.
President Obama has relied heavily on ElBaradei to try to broker a deal to transfer a significant portion of Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium out of Iran for processing into fuel for Iran's research reactor. Despite reportedly agreeing to a deal last month in Geneva, Iran has since backed away from the deal, reverting to its traditional negotiating tactics.
It had been almost four years since the Board of Governors passed a resolution condemning Iran's actions, even as Iran has flouted successive United Nations Security Council resolutions and stymied ElBaradei's IAEA. On Friday, the Board reacted to the recent revelation of Qom and Iran's continued stonewalling of the IAEA investigation by approving a resolution calling on Iran to suspend construction at Qom and expressing concern that Iran's recent actions as well as its failure to implement the Additional Protocol limit the IAEA's ability to verify that Iran's nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
The Bush administration tried repeatedly to push the board to pass such a resolution last year as Iran's noncompliance became more and more egregious. Unfortunately, the administration backed down quickly (too quickly in my view), when it became clear that Russia and China did not support such an action. The fact that Russia and China supported last week's resolution is a positive sign, but there are already debates among experts about how strong the resolution was and whether it is tantamount to a second referral of the Iranian nuclear file to the United Nations Security Council. It is likely that the Obama administration agreed to water down the resolution to keep Russia and China on board. Russian and Chinese acquiescence in Vienna does not mean that they will support meaningful sanctions in New York early next year.
However, if Iran's initial reaction to Friday's resolution is any indication, Iran could be the Obama administration's greatest ally in getting China and Russia to support sanctions. A conservative Iranian member of parliament threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). On Sunday, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would build ten more uranium enrichment facilities. The second threat is likely just that, a threat. Iran lacks the capacity to build large scale enrichment facilities very quickly -- witness the fact that Qom was still not operational despite reportedly being under construction for years. The threat to withdraw from the NPT however, is more troublesome. If Iran were to do this, it could be a trigger for Israeli military action. If the IAEA is unable to verify the location of Iran's nuclear material, Obama administration officials may have to consider U.S. military action or risk diversion of nuclear material to covert facilities.
On Syria, the Board last week missed an opportunity to send a message to the Assad regime. ElBaradei's latest report makes clear that Syria has adopted the Iranian playbook on handling IAEA investigations. The report says that Syria has not responded to the IAEA's questions about its former covert nuclear reactor at Al Kibar even though some of its early answers contradict information that the IAEA has obtained from other sources. Syria has also refused to give the IAEA access to other facilities related to Al Kibar, claiming that these are sensitive military sites even though the IAEA has reminded Syria that under its safeguards agreement, this is not a reason to deny the IAEA access. In addition to unanswered questions about Al Kibar, the report raises new concerns about illicit activity at Syria's declared research reactor near Damascus.
Unlike Iran, Syria at the moment is experiencing a renaissance in its relations with the United States as well as Europe. This will have to change if the international community is serious about upholding the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The Board of Governors, which has largely been silent on the Syria nuclear issue, should have sent a strong message to Damascus that unless the Assad regime begins to share information, it will be subject to the same treatment as Iran (including eventual referral to the Security Council for further action).
The issue is not that Syria has an ongoing nuclear program (although it is difficult for the IAEA to verify this given Syria's lack of cooperation), but it is about the sanctity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the message that needs to be sent to other countries thinking about shirking their commitments. The lesson cannot be that such countries will be slapped on the wrist but then quickly forgiven, only to receive increased trade and diplomatic relations from the United States and Europe.
How President Obama handles these two issues in the coming months will say much about how serious he is about his supposed goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. As Obama said in his April speech in Prague after North Korea violated several United Nations Security Council Resolutions by conducting a missile test, "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."
Last week's IAEA Board resolution on Iran was a start, but there is much work to be done before he can turn this rhetoric into reality.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.