Of all the global challenges facing the Obama administration, many believe the most serious and pressing is the looming prospect that Iran will develop nuclear weapons. This essay provides thorough analysis of the complicated negotiating background and suggests a detailed strategy that might produce a peaceful solution. – Ed.
The Nature of U.S.-Iran Relations
From the Iranian perspective, decades of being abused by Western powers – especially the United States – came to an end with the Islamic revolution. Ironically, the Bush administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein has, in effect, ended America’s dual containment policy of Iraq and Iran, leaving Tehran to claim the spoils of the Iraq war. Iranians moved swiftly to take advantage of the chaotic war conditions, exploiting their close ties to the Iraqi leaders, entrenching themselves in most of Iraq’s social, economic, and political arena. Although many Iranians feel stifled and isolated by their government, they still view the Islamic revolution as something that has freed them from Western bondage and set them on a historical journey to greatness. The Iranian leaders are determined to assert themselves regionally, especially now that their country has become a substantial player in the oil market. The pursuit of a nuclear program is a symbol of the government’s newly found power and a means by which it can enhance its regional leadership role, if not the country’s hegemony. The government feels confident it can continue to do so in defiance of the international community without paying an unacceptable price.
As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)2, Iran has the right to enrich uranium to generate energy for peaceful purposes under strict guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran, however, has failed to fully comply with the NPT provisions and has been unwilling to agree with efforts to settle the impasse over its nuclear program.3 Iran has for more than 18 years concealed its nuclear program, expanded its nuclear facilities – some of which remain unknown to the IAEA – and resisted unannounced inspections. Iran also appears to be seeking industrial enrichment of higher-grade uranium, has failed to answer many questions regarding its ongoing nuclear activity, and continues to threaten Israel existentially. Iran’s behavior in this regard has eroded its international credibility and raised serious questions about its ultimate intentions.
This is the Iran that the Obama administration will face, proud and resolute, with some self-conceit, willing to take risks, albeit carefully calibrated. Iran’s confidence in itself, however exaggerated, is due in part to the West, especially American policy makers – aided by many political intellectuals who have postulated that the global economy cannot do without Iranian oil. The West’s concerns over any interruption in the delivery of oil (25% of global oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz4) resulting from the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities has, for all intents and purposes, removed that option from the table. As a result, the Iranians demonstrate a lack of appreciation about the consequences of their defiance, although they remain terrified of American naval and air force presence in the neighborhood. In addition, as the Iranian leaders have managed to play successfully for time, they feel that they may be able to stall long enough to produce nuclear weapon technology before the next American administration gets its bearing.
There are three critical requisites the Obama administration must carefully consider in order to pave the way for effective negotiations that could lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict:
The first requisite is according Iran the respects it seeks.
From the time the Bush administration designated Iran as a member of the axis of evil in 2002 along with Iraq and North Korea5, all civil discourse between the two nations was effectively ended. Instead of building on the thaw that came about immediately after September 11 and the war in Afghanistan, and creating a favorable atmosphere for negotiations, the U.S. government’s public denunciations of the Iranian leadership were seen as a strategy to prepare the American public opinion for much harsher measures including the use of military force. The next administration must open a new chapter with Iran and show some strategic sensitivity by first recognizing Iran’s historical riches and geopolitical importance. If the United States wishes to achieve an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, it must first improve the public atmosphere. This includes an end to public verbal onslaughts, which only legitimize Iran’s counter belligerency toward the United States.
The second requisite is ending the threats against the regime.
The next administration must make it clear from day one that it has no intention of interfering with Iran’s domestic affairs. If the objective of the negotiations is to end Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, then this must be the focus of the negotiations unless mutually agreed otherwise. Threatening the regime runs contrary to what Washington wants to achieve. To some extent, like its counterpart in North Korea, the Iranian government is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons because it feels threatened. The new administration must instead adopt the policy of constructive engagement by dealing with Iran’s nuclear program as a separate issue from dealing with other American grievances against Iran.
The third requisite is allaying Iran’s security concerns.
The Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Iranian government further deepened Iran’s distrust of the United States. To be sure, negotiating directly with Tehran lends the legitimacy which the Iranian government seeks. But the failure of the administration to inflict painful economic and political measures to force Tehran to change its behavior gave Iran the time and the opportunity to proceed at full speed with its enrichment program. It is extremely doubtful that any progress can be made to halt Iran’s nuclear program without direct negotiations at the Secretarial or Under-Secretarial level between the United States and Iran. As we have seen in the past, to insist on suspension of the enrichment program as a precondition to direct negotiations will not work. Direct negotiations between Iran and the United States will remove many of the hurdles that have hampered the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Meeting face to face will give both sides a much better sense of the other’s genuine concerns, and it will alleviate some of Tehran’s trepidations about Washington’s ultimate intentions.
Establishing New Negotiating Structures
As the rules of engagement are being established on all three negotiating tracks in advance, it is important to include the provision that the lack of progress on any of the tracks should not prejudice the negotiations on the other tracks, and also that the Iranian government must fully subscribe to any rules previously agreed upon.
The P5+1 negotiations with the United States in the lead
Finally, this forum of negotiations should remain formal and known to the public, from which public disclosure about progress can be made by the participants and by mutual agreement. This forum will be fed into by the two other sets of negotiations which should be conducted simultaneously.
The role of a mediator in the secret talks:
Turkey, as a fellow Muslim state, stands a much better chance to convey to Iran Israel’s sentiments to prevent a terrible miscalculation. Because of Turkey’s standing in the region, and as a credible bridge between East and West, it has the potential to succeed where others have failed. Turkey is a close ally and a reliable friend of the United States; it is an important member of NATO; it has worked fervently to maintain the democratic nature of the state; and it has received due praise for its recent diplomatic mediating efforts.
Turkey can better understand the nature of Iran’s threats, specifically in connection with the United States, which has made no secret of its efforts to support Ahmadinejad’s opponents. Turkey may also be in a better position than the EU representatives to bypass Ahmadinejad and reach out directly to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.10 Khamenei, whose power goes practically unchecked in the Iranian government and institutions, has refused to speak to any American representatives. Turkey plays a strategic role in this sense because it can appeal to Khamenei, who will ultimately be responsible for any course of action the Iranian government decides to make on the nuclear issue. In addition, Turkey may offer an alternative where Iran can be persuaded to enrich uranium on Turkish soil under strict IAEA monitoring. Turkey, in short, can change the dynamics by offering a new venue for Americans and Iranians to meet and by generating a new momentum for serious dialogue. Finally, Turkey can provide Iran with a dignified disengagement plan, because if Iran is to make any concessions it will more likely make them to a fellow Muslim-majority state with which it has long and friendly relations.
These secret negotiations must focus on four points:
1- Regional Security: Although most Iranians insist that their nuclear program is designed solely to generate nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, they argue that this should not be confused with Iran’s legitimate national security concerns. They cite the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war that claimed the lives of more than a half million Iranians, and they accuse the United States of seeking a regime change. Regardless of how the Iranian leaders portray their country’s security problems, two postulates can safely be made: a) Iran is most apprehensive and fearful of an attack by the United States and other adversaries like Israel, and b) based on recent Israeli and American intelligence estimates, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is prompted partly by its genuine security concerns and partly by its ambition to become the region’s dominant force.
Regardless, however, of Iran’s ultimate intentions, Tehran may not be persuaded to give up its nuclear enrichment program unless its national security concerns are alleviated. In this regard, only the United States can provide such assurances. There are two schools of thought in Iran concerning the question of security. The first group is composed of those who believe that Iranian security can come about only through confrontation with the United States, and the second believes that Iran’s security can be enhanced only through a constructive relationship with it. One thing, however, remains clear: The Iranian clergy is fully aware that ultimately the preservation of the revolution may depend to a large extent on U.S. willingness to recognize the regime and establish full diplomatic relations with Tehran.
The one element that will persuade Iran to reconsider its nuclear program is if the clergy conclude that acquiring nuclear weapons will end up having a diminishing return. That is, failing to achieve an agreement on the nuclear issue, the United States will move to further entrench itself in the region and resist Iranian encroachment by providing all of its Gulf allies and in particular Israel with security guarantees akin to a defense treaty. The Iranians will have to understand that an attack on Israel or of the Gulf states will be viewed as an attack on the United States. The United States must also make clear that America’s strategic interest in the region is long-term, and the Iranians must choose to live with a friendly or adversarial America. Moreover, the new administration must commit itself to the premise and demonstrate through its actions that the Gulf states will emerge militarily, economically, and diplomatically stronger in the wake of the Iraq war.
Although these will be tough sanctions to carry out, as many countries and companies could offer to set up new oil companies in Iran, many will still be hard pressed to operate against American and European sanctions. A major sanction that can also be left on the table is blocking the Strait of Hormuz, which would paralyze Iran from exporting crude oil and importing any refined oil and gasoline. (Russia and China will most likely object but might not be in a position to defy American sanctions.) It is of note that 85% of Iran’s export income comes from oil sales.11 Cutting off Iran’s oil sales would translate to severing its lifeline. Moreover, the EU and United States have previously tried targeting and freezing assets and funds of major Iranian companies as well as the private funds of individuals. UN Resolution 1747, which was enacted in March of 2007, expanded the number of companies and individuals whose assets would be frozen. In addition, one private option would be to enlist the Saudis, who have a clear vested interest in ensuring that Iran does not go nuclear. They can reward the Europeans (investment houses, energy companies, etc.) who in turn would cut off ties to Iran, and then the Saudis could refuse to do business with those who have business ties to Iran.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has said, “If China had to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, they would choose Saudi Arabia.”12 The Saudis would have to do this quietly. They could also influence the UAE and other Gulf states to follow suite. To be sure, all of the Gulf states that seek to avoid confrontation with Tehran but need American protection can play a significant role as long as they know that the United States has spared no effort to reach a peaceful arrangement with Tehran.
It should be noted that in these secret talks through Turkish mediation, the United States must be specific and articulate the nature of sweeping sanctions and other punitive measures to be taken both unilaterally and multilaterally to insure that the Iranian government fully internalizes what is at stake. This is particularly important because of the religious conviction of the Iranian government and the premise under which it operates. Iranians negotiate out of a deep conviction that they are on the “right” side, which emanates from their belief that they are, in fact, guided by providence; Iran’s President Ahmadinejad recently invoked the name of the Mahdi (as the great savior who will restore Islamic predominance via an apocalyptic event) as being behind his policies. However irrational this may seem to Western thinking, operating from a religious conviction changes the subtext and the implication of any discourse with the Iranians.
3- The Threat of a Military Strike: Being that Iran is bent on pursuing an independent enrichment program, there are still no assurances that Iran will comply even under the most severe sanctions, and the United States may still have to consider the use of force. Here, too, there should be no doubt in the Iranian mind that the Obama administration will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. The Iranians need to understand that if they try to make nuclear weapons or if they build secret facilities that the United States detects, Washington will not hesitate to strike. For this reason the use of force as an option must not be removed from the table. However unpredictable the consequences of an American onslaught on Iranian nuclear facilities will be, doing nothing about it is not an acceptable option. It is true that even an American military attack, however sweeping, may not totally obliterate Iran’s nuclear facilities, as several of these facilities are buried dozens of feet underground. It is also true that following such an attack Iran could retaliate against American installations in the Gulf as well as unleash various terrorist groups, especially Hezbollah, to attack Israeli and Western targets, and it may also try to sabotage international waterways like the Strait of Hormuz. In addition, Iran would probably pull out immediately from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and reconstitute its nuclear weapons program at an accelerated pace.
As a result, Iran might indeed still be in a position to acquire nuclear weapons, possibly within four to six years (estimates vary), as it may still have left some underground nuclear facilities intact following such an attack. This scenario, however, might not hold entirely true, as the regional political and military conditions will also change in the wake of an American attack. Will the Iranian government survive such a devastating attack? How much will really be left of Iran’s nuclear facilities? Since such an attack would occur only after months of destructive sanctions, will Tehran have the means to forge ahead, especially after sustaining massive military devastation? Such an attack may not be necessary provided that the Iranian government fully understands the consequences of this sort of military offensive.
Regardless of continued U.S. military involvement both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, America’s naval and air forces remain basically free to act at will. The Iranian regime will have no reason to assume that the new U.S. administration will not resort to force should it become necessary, provided the president makes it abundantly clear that a nuclear Iran is not an option, and that failing to achieve a breakthrough in the negotiations, America will act militarily. The targets will include not only Iran’s nuclear facilities but its air defense systems. And to drive this point home the United States must demonstrate its military readiness, and the political will to destroy rebuilt nuclear facilities if it becomes necessary.
4- The Israeli Factor: The fourth subject of discussion in the secret talks must be the Israeli factor, where again Turkey, which is extremely familiar with Israel’s concerns, can convey the gravity of the situation. While it is true that Israel too would much prefer to see the conflict resolved through international diplomatic efforts, no Israeli leader, regardless of political leanings, feels sanguine about such a prospect, and from their perspective time is running out. Unlike any other country, Israel is being directly threatened existentially by the Iranian leaders, and it cannot dismiss such threats as being merely rhetorical or inconsequential. The Israelis, who still have fresh memories of the Holocaust, take such threats seriously and as a result are left with no choice but to consider any option, including a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, however uncertain the consequences may be.
In these secret talks the United States must disabuse Iran – through Turkey – of the notion that Israel will not act alone without, at a minimum, American acquiescence. The Iranians must understand that while the Israelis will be concerned about the potential regional catastrophe resulting from an attack, they will be prepared to take the risks if they are convinced that their very existence is at stake. Israelis will always seek American support in the confrontation with Iran, but they will not make their survival contingent on American consent. The fact that the Bush administration turned down Israel’s request to purchase the new generation of deep penetrating bombs, ostensibly for use against Iran’s underground nuclear installations, does not change Israel’s strategic calculus. From the Israeli perspective the perceived Iranian threat outweighs the risks of using lesser effective bombs if it became necessary.
Israelis reject, in principle, all discussions about nuclear deterrence because they do not accept the premise that deterrence works against Iran as it generally worked between the United States and the Soviet Union or as it may be working now between India and Pakistan. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States and the Soviets did come close to nuclear exchanges in spite of the deterrence doctrine. Moreover, considering the volatility of the Middle East, a major crisis could trigger nuclear confrontation even though all sides understand the value of deterrence and containment. The Israelis who deal with these national security issues stress that if they believed deterrence would work against Iran, Israel would have abandoned its strategy of nuclear ambiguity – neither confirming nor denying its possession of nuclear weapons. Israel in this case would have declared its possession of weapons and lived with the balance of terror of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Iranian officials, including President Ahmadinejad, at one time suggested that Israel could be wiped out with one bomb, and even if Israel managed to mount retaliatory strikes and kill ten million Iranians, still it will not be able to cause irreparable damage. Iran, Ahmadinejad argues, would still survive because it would end up, as he put it, with ten million martyrs.
The Israelis also insist that even if the current Iranian government has no intention of using a nuclear weapon to attack Israel, who knows what the succeeding government could do so long as the destruction of Israel is religiously imbedded. There is also the possibility that a nuclear device may be passed to a terrorist group with no compunction of using it against Israel. Moreover, Israel does not subscribe to the argument that Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons is designed only to neutralize Israel’s possession of scores of such weapons. The Israelis argue that their country never threatened Iran and in fact enjoyed good relations with the Iranians before the revolution.
Against this backdrop, the Israelis are calibrating their strategy against Iran as they assess the speed at which Iran can muster the technology to produce nuclear weapons. Contrary to the National Intelligence Estimate, the Israeli intelligence community estimates that Iran can reach this threshold within a year, which makes it, from their perspective, extremely urgent to find a diplomatic solution. Should no diplomatic solution be found, it will be foolish to assume that Israel’s inability to completely destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities would render such an option obsolete.
Addressing mutual grievances
Against these Iranian charges the United States has its own list of countercharges going back to the days of the revolution in 1979 when the Iranian students seized the American embassy and held 54 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. The United States further accuses Iran of supporting terrorism, undermining the Arab-Israeli peace process, and fomenting political instability in Arab countries friendly with the United States such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and especially Lebanon through its surrogate, Hezbollah. Even more worrisome to the United States is Iran’s deepening involvement in Iraq, where it stands accused of supporting the Shiite militia in Iraq with weapons and munitions used against U.S. forces, resulting in the death of hundreds of American soldiers. Moreover, the United States has major concerns over Iran’s human rights abuses and what must be done to alleviate this situation. Topping this list, the United States is convinced that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons while its leaders threaten Israel existentially, which could have dreadful implications for American relations in the Middle East and Asia.
These charges and countercharges stand in the way of resolving the nuclear crisis, and will continue to do so unless they are dealt with to the satisfaction of both sides. Obviously, there are no ready-made solutions to resolve all of these conflicting issues. That being said, the new Obama administration must demonstrate that it is fully prepared to make good faith efforts to tackle these issues one by one and pave the way for better relations. Such an effort by the United States is not tantamount to an appeasement of the Iranian clergy, as many who oppose direct negotiations with Iran suggest. At least from their own perspectives, both American and Iranian grievances are legitimate, and the more powerful nation can afford to set the tone and take the initiative.
While both sides must acknowledge and address the grievances of the other, Tehran and Washington have a mutual interest in cooperating in a few areas as they did immediately after September 11 and in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. This includes Iraq, where both countries want to see the Shiite Maliki government succeed. U.S. interests also coincide with Iran’s on the future stability of the Talabani-Barzani regime in northern Iraq. Finally, the United States and Iran can find a common interest in dealing with the Caucasus in the search for a stable supply of gas and oil, where Iran’s cooperation remains essential. Reaching an agreement on some of the issues which both have interest in resolving would allow for confidence building that can pave the way for tackling issues of unilateral concern.
1. The P5+1 consists of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council [United States, France, Britain, China, and Russia] plus Germany.
2. Article IV of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons states: “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”
3. On the November 27 IAEA Board of Governors report by the General Director is was noted that “Contrary to the decisions of the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, having continued the operation of PFEP and FEP and the installation of new cascades and the operation of new generation centrifuges for test purposes.
4. The Energy Information Administration maintains that the Persian Gulf produced about 28% of the world’s oil supply in 2006, exporting 17 million barrels per day via the Straight of Hormuz which represents roughly one-fifth of the world oil supply.
7. Thus far negotiations have been led by Spain’s Javier Solana who serves as High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union (EU). Later talks were joined the US Undersecretary of State William Burns.
11. A memorandum from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on June 12, 2008 notes that, “oil accounts for roughly 85 percent of Iran's exports, comprising upwards of 65 percent of government income.”