Obama’s Iran Challenge


By: Greg C. Reeson

As he neared the end of his much-heralded “fact-finding” tour of the Middle East and Europe late last week, Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama called on Iran to quickly agree to international demands to freeze its uranium enrichment program. His words are ringing hollow in Tehran, though, because Senator Obama has thus far refused to back his emphasis on talking with the credible threat of military force.

Speaking in France on Friday, Senator Obama said, “My expectation is that we’re going to present a clear choice to Iran: change your behavior and you will be fully integrated into the international community with all the benefits that go with that. Continue your illicit nuclear program and the international community as a whole will ratchet up pressure with stronger and increased sanctions.” On Saturday, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by saying Iran now had 6,000 centrifuges, twice the number needed for a nuclear program capable of weapons development.

Prior to Ahmadinejad’s statement, Iranian representative Saeed Jalili had presented Tehran’s response to the latest diplomatic effort produced by the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany at a Geneva meeting attended by the third ranking diplomat in the United States, Undersecretary of State William Burns. To no one’s surprise, Iran’s response was much the same as it has been for the past five years: a refusal to budge on its enrichment of uranium and a call for additional meetings in the future. So, the permanent five plus Germany announced a two-week deadline for Iran to comply or face a new round of sanctions from the Security Council. Senior Iranian cleric Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani immediately rejected the deadline.

Senator Obama wants to continue diplomatic efforts with Iran while refraining from discussing the possibility of using military force. He has repeatedly reminded us that he opposes the Bush Administration’s “saber rattling,” arguing that non-military options have not been exhausted. This view is shared by many on the left who either fear that we will provoke Iran into some sort of action that threatens the United States or who believe that military force is never justified. Speaking recently at a Center for Strategic and International Studies panel on Iran, former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed the latter when he said, “We are perhaps unintentionally legitimating the idea of the use of force.” He added, “The real option is to keep negotiating, be very tough on the sanctions, adopt more sanctions, make it more painful for the Iranians.”

The problem is that nothing over the past five years has been painful for the Iranians. The ineffectiveness of the Security Council has demonstrated that meaningful multilateral sanctions are not likely to be forthcoming, and unilateral sanctions, such as those imposed by the United States and separately by the European Union, have historically had poor results. Gary Sick, a noted Iran expert and former Iran officer in the national security councils of the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, recently told the Council on Foreign Relations, “On the U.S. side, there has been a recognition that our sanctions, which have been in place for thirteen years and have increased in severity over that time, have not in fact stopped Iran from building centrifuges and expanding its nuclear capability.”

Iran will not be easily deterred. Leaders in Tehran have been working on nuclear energy technology for half a century, since President Eisenhower launched his Atoms for Peace Program in the 1950s. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, concerns about Iran’s program pushed western nations away, leaving Iran to continue its nuclear pursuits on its own. In the mid-1990s, Russia agreed to help Iran with its development of nuclear technology by building two reactors at Bushehr and by subsequently supplying the fuel for the reactors. When it was discovered in 2002 that Iran had been conducting clandestine fuel enrichment research, many western nations became alarmed and suspected that Iran was working to develop nuclear weapons, something Iran has repeatedly denied.

Could we live with a nuclear Iran? Probably. We have lived with other nuclear powers for decades and the threat of massive retaliation against Iran is probably enough to give Tehran pause before employing nuclear weapons against the United States, Israel, or any of Iran’s Arab neighbors. The real threat is that of proliferation. A nuclear Iran would likely spur other Middle East nations to pursue their own nuclear programs, both as a counter to Iran and as a means for obtaining enhanced leverage in a very troubled region. That is the reason Iran’s program must be dealt with, and soon.

Of course, a diplomatic solution is the preferred outcome. But diplomatic efforts have yielded little so far because to date the members of the Security Council have not adopted a unified position in opposition to Tehran’s continued defiance. Russia and China, both with extensive financial interests in Iran, have refused to back meaningful sanctions, forcing the United States, France and the United Kingdom to accept watered down resolutions that have had little impact. Our European allies are strictly averse to the use of force to compel Iran to comply with the U.N.’s demands, and the United States is unable to unilaterally take meaningful military action while tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the day is coming when the United States will be able to take effective military action, if necessary, against Iran. The inevitable drawdown of military forces from Iraq, enabled by the tactical successes of the past year, will free up critical capabilities from across the services, even if some resources are diverted to the increasingly difficult fight in Afghanistan.

And while a resort to violence against Iran should be the last option considered, it must remain an option nonetheless. The option to use military force need not be exercised, but without it diplomacy lacks a meaningful mechanism for persuading Iran to work with the international community. The challenge for Senator Obama is to embrace the notion that diplomacy can only be effective when it is backed by the credible threat of military action. If he can do that, his plan for continued dialogue with Iran will carry significantly more weight.

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