- The administration of President Barack Obama should put more emphasis on diplomacy in its quest for a satisfactory resolution of Iran’s nuclear programme, according to a major new report released by The Iran Project.
Endorsed by nearly three dozen former top U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence officials, the report calls for Washington to “rebalance” its dual-track policy toward Tehran by strengthening the diplomatic track to take advantage of the pressure it has exerted on Tehran through ever-stricter sanctions and threats of military action.
“Much has been accomplished through pressure, but the results have fallen short of expectations in several ways, and unintended consequences pose risks,” according to the report, the latest in a series by The Iran Project and the first to make specific policy reccomendations designed to both defuse persistent tensions over Tehran’s nuclear programme and lay the groundwork for a broader dialogue between the two countries.
Previous reports have focused instead on the costs and benefits of sanctions and military action against Iran.
The pressure track, the new, 84-page report argues, may have weakened Iran’s economy and slowed the expansion of its nuclear programme, but it has not produced any breakthrough nor markedly reduced Tehran’s regional influence.
Moreover, the pressure track may also have hardened Tehran’s resistance to pressure, contributed to a rise in repression in Iran, and compounded sectarian tensions across the volatile Middle East, according to the report.
It was signed by, among other prominent foreign-policy figures, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; the former Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar; and one of the most highly decorated diplomats of his generation, former Amb. Thomas Pickering, a core member of The Iran Project.
“A strengthened diplomatic track that includes the promise of sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable (Iranian) cooperation could help to end the standoff and produce a nuclear deal,” the report asserts.
The report comes amidst uncertainty about the future of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme between Tehran and the “P5+1”, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. In the latest round of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, earlier this month, it appears that neither side moved off its previous position, and no date for new high-level talks has been set.
Nonetheless, all parties said the discussions were more detailed and substantive than in past meetings and stressed that there had been no breakdown in the process. Most analysts believe that little or no progress can be expected until after the presidential elections in Iran Jun. 14.
The lack of apparent progress – coupled with the installation of more and more sophisticated centrifuges by Iran at uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo – has encouraged the Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD), to press Congress for new sanctions against Iran and foreign companies that do business with it that, if approved and fully enforced, would amount to a de facto trade embargo against the Islamic Republic.
A key Senate committee Tuesday approved a resolution calling on Obama to more strictly enforce existing sanctions and to provide military and other support to Israel if the Jewish state “is compelled to take military action in self-defense”.
The new report, “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure With Diplomacy,” also comes amidst a spate of other studies by influential mainstream think tanks that have argued for greater flexibility by the administration in its dealings with Iran.
Just last week, an Atlantic Council task force, which Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel co-chaired until he was nominated to his new post, released a report that called for Washington to “make a more concerted effort to keep Iran from getting to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, while lessening the chances for war through reinvigorated diplomacy that offers Iran a realistic and face-saving way out of the nuclear standoff.”
While it concluded that Washington should retain the option to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from acquiring a weapon, it also warned that ramifications of a “premature military strike …could also be dire.”
Similarly, a new book co-authored by a former top Gulf expert in the Reagan administration, Geoffrey Kemp of the Center for the National Interest, and based on months of consultations with elite national-security experts recommended a “more aggressive U.S. strategy. …(A)llowing very limited and closely monitored (uranium) enrichment within Iran is far preferable to war, and is less risky,” according to the book.
Meanwhile, another recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that, “Economic pressure or military force cannot ‘end’ Iran’s nuclear program. …The only sustainable solution for assuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains purely peaceful is a mutually agreeable diplomatic solution.”
This emerging elite – if not Congressional – consensus will be bolstered by The Iran Project’s report which insists that “no change in U.S. policy will be possible unless President Obama makes the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran one of his top priorities.”
The report stresses that any direct talks – which the administration in recent months appears to have endorsed – should complement the efforts of the P5+1 and that emphasising the diplomatic track would not mean abandoning the pressure track, “including maintaining the option of using military force should the Iranians move quickly to build a bomb.”
“Yet the more the President threatens the use of force, the more difficult it will be for Iran’s defiant leadership to consider any offer, and the more the President will be under pressure to use military force,” it warned.
The report defines a minimum nuclear deal as including Iran’s agreement to produce only low-enriched uranium (3.5-5 percent); cease its production of 20-percent enriched uranium; reduce its existing stockpiles of enriched uranium; and forswear production of plutonium – all under a strict monitoring regime by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In return, Washington and its P5+1 partners would offer some sanctions relief (although the report notes that Obama’s flexibility to roll back U.S. sanctions is limited by Congress); a commitment not to impose new sanctions for a period of time; and formal recognition of Iran’s limited enrichment programme.
If such a minimum agreement can be reached, according to the report, Washington should broaden talks with Tehran to explore opportunities for cooperation, notably on Afghanistan and Iraq, drug trafficking, and even Syria, although that would be substantially more ambitious.
While the administration has called for direct talks with Tehran’s to clarify its position on the nuclear programme, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has expressed strong scepticism about their usefulness so long as Washington is “holding a gun against Iran”.
At the same time, he has not ruled out such talks – previously a taboo subject in Tehran that has now become a major subject of public debate.