Iran Respects Strength, Not Weakness

By: Greg C. Reeson

As the November presidential election draws near, the issue of Iran’s nuclear program will undoubtedly be thrust to the forefront of the candidates’ debate. Senator Obama has advocated direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without any preconditions whatsoever. Senator McCain has rejected that idea, instead choosing to focus on continued diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions backed by the threat of military force as a last resort. No matter which candidate is elected this fall, the new president will be faced with the same two basic options currently on the table for dealing with Iran: continued diplomatic efforts coupled with economic sanctions, or the use of military force. What is needed, though, is a new option that strengthens the U.S. position, gives Iran reason to pause, and provides an impetus for Tehran to get serious about resolving its impasse with the West.

Diplomatic efforts thus far have proven futile. The West continues to attempt dialogue with Tehran, only to be rebuffed time and time again, and the UN Security Council has passed three rounds of economic sanctions that were watered down enough to ensure they would have no appreciable effect. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has offered up yet another incentives package, which Iran has said it is studying. Translation: the buying of more time while nuclear work continues unabated. Most recently, newly announced European Union sanctions targeting Iranian funds were largely negated before their enactment by Tehran’s transfer of billions of dollars from European banks, making them more symbolic than meaningful.

Diplomatic overtures and economic penalties have achieved nothing thus far because there is no clear international consensus on the Iranian issue. Russia is heavily invested in Iran’s nuclear program and is a major arms supplier to Tehran, while both China and Germany have extensive business interests in Iran that make support for stringent economic measures unlikely at best. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of the international community have been woefully inadequate to support the rhetoric of national leaders. The result: an Iran that ignores the pleas of the West while continuing work on a proclaimed civilian, but suspected military, nuclear program. The reality is that words do not matter unless they are backed by the credible threat of military action, an option that has, for the most part, been discounted by the international community and by many in the United States.

Truthfully, the military option is not a good one. U.S. ground forces are already stretched thin by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, making any military strike heavily dependent upon air power and cruise missile attacks. Given the dispersion of Iranian nuclear facilities and the measures taken by Iran to defend those facilities, including underground construction and elaborate air defense networks, any air strike would likely have only a limited effect on Iran’s nuclear capability, perhaps setting it back a bit but most certainly not eliminating it.

There has been some speculation that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the revelation of a recent Israeli military exercise only added fuel to the fire. But an Israeli strike against Iran is highly unlikely. The Olmert government, growing weaker by the day, is struggling to stay in power while dealing with rapidly progressing Syrian peace negotiations, continued rocket fire from the Gaza strip that threatens a very fragile truce, and a re-arming and ever-strengthening Hezbollah operating out of Lebanon. Israel could not attack Iran without U.S. support and cooperation that is not likely to materialize under the current president or the next.

The potential consequences of a military attack are simply not worth the risks involved. In short, Iran could: increase its activities in Iraq and threaten recent security gains that could facilitate a reduction in U.S. troop levels; apply pressure to Hezbollah to cause further instability in Lebanon and Israel or use the terrorist group’s global network to attack U.S. or Israeli interests worldwide; incite unrest among Shi’a populations in neighboring Sunni countries; and cut off all contact with monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, further setting back efforts to assess Iran’s nuclear progress. Additionally, oil prices would undoubtedly increase way beyond the record levels we are already seeing, and the regional backlash would be more than the United States is willing to take on at this time.

With diplomacy and sanctions failing, and military action highly unlikely, a new course of action is needed. This new course has to be based on Western recognition that the suspect nuclear program that is causing so much angst is only one aspect of a multi-part strategy designed to position Iran as the most powerful nation in the region. Other components of the strategy include aggressive regional diplomatic efforts designed to ease Arab fears and shore up support against Western “aggression,” and providing funding and munitions for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, and multiple Shi’a militias in Iraq.

In crafting a new course of action, the United States should remember this: Iran pays attention to strength, not weakness. Last December’s National Intelligence Estimate reported with a high degree of confidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, when, not coincidentally, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq resulted in the placement of American combat forces on Iran’s Eastern and Western borders. At the end of 2006, when the security situation in Iraq was spinning violently out of control, and a U.S. withdrawal looked imminent, Iranian defiance and rhetoric were at an all-time high. Then came the surge of American forces ordered by President Bush in early 2007, an increase in troop levels intended not only to help quell the violence in Iraq, but also to send a clear message to Tehran that U.S. military forces would not be pulling out as expected.

As U.S. and Iraqi surge forces mounted offensive operations targeting Iranian-backed militias, back-channel negotiations between Tehran and Washington picked up steam, despite continuing open forum rhetoric designed purely for internal public consumption. Government of Iraq operations targeting the Mahdi Army and Shi’a militias in Basra put Iran on notice and set the stage for more smoothly executed operations in Sadr City and Amarah. Now, in the wake of the suspected Israeli “dry run” for an attack on Iranian nuclear assets, Iran and the United States are publicly floating the possibility of an American diplomatic presence in Iran: the Great Satan with a diplomatic mission to a charter member of the Axis of Evil.

The security pact currently being negotiated between Washington and Baghdad offers an opportunity for a new approach. Discussion should focus on a long-term troop presence in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, where Iranian influence is much less significant than in the south and where violence levels have been remarkably low for much of the past five years. Over time, as Iraqi Security Forces are able to assume responsibility for security in the contentious areas in western, central, and southern Iraq, U.S. forces could consolidate in the north, which has essentially been self-policing since the early 1990s.

Putting American troops in Iraq’s Kurdish north could reassure allied Sunni governments in the region concerned about spreading Iranian influence, provide assistance to the Turkish government in its fight against Kurdish terrorists, and serve as a check to Iran’s quest for regional hegemony by positioning U.S. forces just a few hundred miles from Tehran. Such a move would not increase the likelihood of a military strike against Iran in the near-term, but would instead put some muscle behind long-term U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region. It would solidify the U.S. presence in a volatile part of the world that is of strategic interest to the United States. And it would almost certainly force Iran to reevaluate its current strategy.

It is, of course, doubtful that this option would put a complete stop to Iranian support for terrorist groups in the Middle East or that it would cause Iran to suddenly give up its quest for a nuclear capability just because Iraq agreed to host a long-term American military presence. But given Iranian responses to strong U.S. positions thus far, such a move would almost certainly give Ahmadinejad and the mullahs reason to pause and reconsider their position. And it would allow the next president to address the nuclear issue and Iranian regional ambitions from a position of strength instead of weakness.

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