January 18, 2018

Iran Looms As Nuclear Party Crasher

Few crises are more dangerous than a forced entry into the nuclear weapons club by an outlier nation. Iran seems determined to
ruin the honeymoon of the next American president by doing just that. 

Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008
by James KitfieldMissiles flare through the skies above Iran. U.S. and British warships stage all-hands-on-deck maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. More than
100 Israeli airplanes rehearse an attack that seems targeted at the Islamic republic. Credible media reports surface of U.S. covert operations
inside Iranian territory.

More than 230 members of the U.S. House back a resolution that calls for a blockade of Iran, an act of war under international law. Bellicose
rhetoric and pointed threats emanate from the capitals of all concerned.

In recent weeks, the long-simmering dispute between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and
support for terrorists has once again neared a boiling point. At that temperature, a single miscalculation can ignite a war that neither side
seems to want. Perhaps in recognition of that danger, both the Bush administration and the Tehran regime have signaled a new willingness to
at last engage in high-level negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

These events should serve as a warning to presumptive presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama to be careful what they
wish for. Despite the enormous challenges one of them will face in managing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the confrontation looming
on the horizon that may prove even more treacherous. Iran is a more powerful and populous potential adversary even without nuclear
weapons, and it sits atop the State Department’s list of terrorist sponsors and astride the world’s oil lifeline. Avoiding war with Iran, or
coping with its blowback, will thus require answering a deceptively simple question: What to do about Tehran’s persistent banging on the
door of the nuclear weapons club?

“The next administration is going to inherit many challenges, but none will be more urgent than Iran,” said Dennis Ross, the longtime Middle
East negotiator and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Given the failure of U.S. policy to check Tehran’s progress in
enriching uranium, Ross believes that Iran is well on its way to becoming a nuclear weapons state. Indeed, an unusually blunt report by the
United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has some experts speculating that Iran could have enough uranium for a bomb within a year. “By the time
the next administration is in place,” Ross predicted, “Iran will have created more facts on the ground that decrease the president’s choices
and diminish the time he will have to execute them.”

Bomb, or Talk?

In previewing those choices, Republican John McCain has indicated no interest in talking with Iran’s leaders, even though he says that the
only thing worse than bombing Iran would be to allow it to acquire a nuclear bomb. Democrat Barack Obama has proposed opening
high-level talks with the Iranians without preconditions. Those seemingly polar-opposite views reflect the internal debate that has raged for
nearly eight years–and is still raging–within the Bush administration.

Both the McCain and Obama positions on Iran leave critical questions unanswered about the strategy and policies that the next
administration will adopt. McCain’s tough talk is reminiscent of President Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric fingering Iran, Iraq, and North
Korea, and suggests a continuation of the Bush administration’s approach toward suspected nuclear rogues. But McCain hasn’t made clear
which Bush policy course he would take on Iran–that of isolation and continued threat of regime change, or that of reluctant engagement
and eventual compromise, such as the president is now pursuing with North Korea.

Recently, the Bush administration reversed its own policy of no direct, high-level engagement with Iran absent a halt to its enrichment
program and sent Undersecretary of State William Burns to Geneva in July for inconclusive multilateral talks with Iran’s nuclear negotiator.
Even if a President McCain were determined to deter Iran’s nuclear program by force if necessary, he would find it difficult to limit the
repercussions or construct a durable architecture of international containment of Iran without engaging in direct talks with Tehran.

“The United States’ unwillingness to go the extra mile or even talk with Iran makes it much more difficult to get broad support for sanctions
and other elements of a containment regime,” said Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the
CIA. A more fundamental problem with the Bush administration’s approach, Pillar said, is that its continued implied threat of regime change
negates any incentives that Iran might have to do business with the United States.
“Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear program forges ahead, the centrifuges keep spinning, Tehran’s support for extremist groups throughout the
Middle East persists, and the U.S.-Iranian relationship is at a low point, with saber-rattling and bluster on both sides,” said Pillar, now a
visiting professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University. “How can anyone possibly argue that policy is a success?”

For his part, Obama’s promised negotiations to resolve U.S. differences with Iran are more likely to succeed if they carry at least the
credible threat of military force, a threat that conservatives believe will be undermined by Obama’s eagerness to talk. Nor does his pledge of
engagement make clear what a President Obama would do if those talks ultimately fail to halt Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons.
“I’m not against talking to people we don’t like or even trust, but the question is, under what circumstances and at what price?” Richard
Perle, the hawkish former chairman of the Defense Policy Board in the first Bush term, told National Journal. “And in the case of Iran, you
will pay a very high price under present circumstances because it will be seen by Iran and the entire region as one more sign of American
weakness. The Iranians have already made fools of the Bush administration by exposing its threats as empty rhetoric. For eight years,
Tehran has cleverly kept the United States at bay while continuing their nuclear program and deepening their support for terrorism in
Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” he said. “Now people argue that talking to Iran directly will be a silver bullet that puts an end to all
that. And there is absolutely no evidence or logic to support that proposition. It’s nonsense.”
In the vast gulf between campaign bumper stickers that shout “Unconditional Talks” or “Bomb Iran,” however, lie many difficult choices
and multiple forks in the road of policy development. Any strategy that fails to anticipate them fully or appreciate the twists and turns that
brought the United States to this difficult pass risks inadvertent war on the one hand, or a nuclear breakout by a dangerous adversary on the
other. The candidates and their national security teams would do well to consider the lessons of recent years and think through their
strategies now, because history suggests that waiting until the crisis is upon you invites the most dangerous type of brinkmanship. (See
sidebar, p. 34.)

Compounding Failures

In many ways the forceful entry of Pakistan into the ranks of declared nuclear weapons states on May 28, 1998–with the testing of five
weapons–foreshadowed today’s nuclear crises. Because Pakistan did not sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it is subject to none of
its safeguards, or to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The world has since learned that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the
“father” of the Pakistani bomb, had long run a black market in uranium enrichment technologies that found eager customers in Iran, Libya,
and North Korea. Meanwhile, Pyongyang may have passed its nuclear know-how along to Syria, whose suspected nuclear facilities were
destroyed by Israeli warplanes last year.

The Bush administration, with the post-9/11 winds firmly at its back and the dangers of weapons falling into the hands of terrorists clearly
in mind, decided to shatter the link between rogue states and nuclear weapons once and for all with a doctrine of coercion, military
pre-emption, and regime change. The test case was Iraq, but the administration identified North Korea and Iran as potential targets as well,
suspecting that all three nations had nuclear weapons programs.

Although Libya did surrender its weapons of mass destruction and related programs after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the
failure to find any WMD in Iraq, coupled with the unexpectedly bloody and onerous military operations there, began to neutralize the Bush
doctrine. North Korea was emboldened to become the newest declared weapons state with a nuclear test in 2006, for example, and Iran
seems to be accelerating its own nuclear weapons program as a way to deter the United States.

“Right now, the United States and Iran are in an action-reaction cycle that could easily spin out of control and end in war,” said Joseph
Cirincione, a longtime nonproliferation and arms control expert who is now president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit organization
that works to deter the spread and use of nuclear weapons. “Under the current failed strategy, the Iranian threat is growing steadily worse,
and America is looking increasingly feckless. To its credit the Bush administration changed course when its similar policy toward North
Korea failed. They need to change course with Iran in the same way.”

Confronted with North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, Washington did indeed adjust its approach, managing through multilateral
negotiations and direct talks to persuade Pyongyang to disable its primary plutonium reactor in exchange for economic aid, nonaggression
pledges, and other incentives.

With only months left in office, however, Bush officials seem increasingly resigned to leave the next administration with the task of
fashioning a policy toward Iran. The threat of a new nuclear-armed adversary, a situation that in earlier times pushed the United States to
the brink of war and beyond, thus seems destined to bedevil the next in a long line of American presidents.

The North Korea Example

How McCain or Obama responds will likely depend on the lessons they and their closest advisers draw from the evolution of Bush’s policy
toward North Korea. To hawks who note that North Korea has yet to surrender its nuclear arsenal or fully declare all aspects of its nuclear
program, the shift in policy was a betrayal of the first principle of refusing to negotiate or compromise with rogues. Referring to Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice’s approach of direct bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang and incremental quid pro quo concessions, former
U.N. Ambassador John Bolton recently blasted his former colleagues: “It appears there is no depth to which this administration will not
sink in its last days,” Bolton told The Washington Post.

Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, the intellectual home to many of
the neoconservatives who were so influential in the first Bush term. “I think there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind who blinked in
the showdown between the United States and North Korea–George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice blinked,” she told National Journal. “I
think the Iranians looked very closely at what happened with the North Koreans and decided that they would be fools to negotiate with the
United States from a position of weakness, when they can acquire nuclear weapons and then negotiate from a position of strength. That’s
what they learned from the North Korean example.”

Yet policy leaves a historical trail, and many experts say that the record is clear: Even at the height of America’s coercive power in 2003, the
Bush policy of threatened regime change, sanctions, and refusal to directly negotiate failed to deter Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear
weapons, and may even have accelerated its plans. Meanwhile, as distasteful and cruel as the North Korean regime is, the more recent White
House approach of direct talks has led to the disablement of its plutonium reactor in exchange for U.S. concessions, such as removing the
country from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

“Twenty months ago, North Korea was blowing up nuclear weapons, and we recently take their name off a piece of paper and they blow
up their own nuclear reactor–what is not to like about that deal?” Cirincione asked.

Gary Samore is a former director of nonproliferation on the National Security Council. “What I hope we have learned from the North
Korean episode that applies to Iran is to be more realistic in our policies,” he said. “The Bush administration correctly believed that it was
desirable to disarm North Korea comprehensively and irreversibly, but they miscalculated how tough others in the region, such as China and
South Korea, were willing to be in terms of putting extreme pressure on North Korea. Those nations were more interested in preserving
stability than forcing Pyongyang into a desperate corner,” said Samore, a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, in speaking to
reporters recently. “My guess is that the next president, whoever that is, will also need to be more flexible in negotiating with Iran. We need
to lift preconditions and put on the table some of the economic and political benefits that the Bush administration was unwilling to
offer–namely normalizing relations and lifting bilateral sanctions.”

Bigger Carrots and Bigger Sticks

The Bush administration recently signaled that it might accept the European Union’s proposal under which “prenegotiations” could begin
based on Tehran’s willingness to freeze new centrifuge construction in exchange for a freeze on new international sanctions, with
more-formal talks to follow. Although Iran reacted flippantly to the “freeze-for-freeze” offer, many experts believe that the heightened
diplomatic activity reflects a growing awareness among all concerned that time may be running out to reach a negotiated settlement to the

“We need to engage directly with Iran not because of any illusions that it will be easy to persuade its leaders but because we need to directly
communicate to them all that they have to gain and to lose,” said the Washington Institute’s Ross. The current approach of waving the “big
stick” of regime change and only weak incentives, he said, is not working. In its place, Ross argues for a combination of strong incentives,
such as full economic integration and security guarantees for Iran, and sticks, including even tougher sanctions denying Iran access to the
international financial system.

Such broad sanctions would almost certainly require Russian cooperation in the U.N. Security Council. That may be difficult, given
Moscow’s increasing anger over the United States’ missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Washington would still be better able to make
the case for tougher sanctions, Ross argues, if it was talking to Iran.

“Engagement and direct negotiations will not only put us in a stronger position to get others to do more in isolating Iran, but it will also help
convince Iranian leaders that this is not a game anymore,” Ross said. “They may desire nuclear weapons, but I don’t think they are willing
to pursue them at any price.”

Even if talks were ultimately unsuccessful, some experts believe that they could help in constructing a security architecture to contain Iran.
Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution proposes inviting Iran to join a regional security alliance based on the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe or perhaps an expanded Gulf Cooperation Council to give Tehran a prominent seat at the table in regional
security negotiations.

“You would want the Iranians inside any regional security architecture, but if they turned that down it would say to the rest of the region
that Tehran is not interested in collective security or avoiding regional crises–and that regional alliance then serves as your containment
regime,” Pollack said. “Even then you would want to continue talking to Iran to establish rules of the road and some framework for
communication to avoid miscalculations. That’s a no-brainer.”

Containment and Deterrence

Other elements of a containment regime might include transferring additional arms to U.S. allies in the Middle East worried about an
ascendant Iran; permanently stationing more military forces in the region; and even extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to regional partners
to dissuade them from pursuing nuclear weapons of their own. Another option is U.S. support for anti-regime groups inside and outside
Iran, although that move runs the risk of further locking Washington and Tehran into confrontation.

“The truth is that U.S. presidents have been sending up trial balloons, attempting to open a dialogue with Iran for nearly 30 years, and it has
never worked because the nature of the Iranian regime doesn’t allow for real dialogue,” said Nasser Rashidi, executive director of the National
Coalition of Pro-Democracy Advocates, an umbrella organization of Iranian dissident and anti-regime groups. “From the very beginning, this
has been a revolutionary regime which believed that in order to survive and prosper, the revolution had to be exported.”

In fact, the fundamental nature of the Islamist regime in Tehran poses an existential dilemma likely to haunt the councils of the next
American president. Can the classic deterrent of mutually assured destruction work in dealing with a nuclear nation led by Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, a messianic firebrand who has an apocalyptic worldview and has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and by an insular
mullah theocracy with strong ties to anti-Western terrorist groups?

Former CIA Mideast expert Pillar believes that the answer is yes. “Of all the harsh rhetoric in this debate on Iran, to me the most dangerous
is the idea that this is a group of people who are so crazy that they cannot be deterred, and thus military force has to be used. That’s
nonsense, because Iran is not suicidal,” he said. “We have faced nuclear-armed adversaries that seemed just as aggressive, crazy, and
imperialist, going back to the Soviet Union and Communist China. The principle of nuclear deterrence that applied to them can apply
equally to Iran.” (For more NJ coverage of this issue, see “Of Mullahs and MADness,” 5/20/06, p. 20.)

Yet, imagine yourself president of post-9/11 America, contemplating nihilistic suicide bombers bent on your nation’s destruction and
nuclear weapons in the hands of the world’s top terrorist sponsor. Or put yourself in the shoes of the prime minister of Israel, sitting in Tel
Aviv and thinking of the madness of Ahmadinejad equipped with nuclear weapons.

As Defense secretary, William Perry glimpsed the dark possibilities during the 1994 crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. At
a recent presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he was asked to imagine a world with a nuclear-armed Iran. Perry
looked genuinely perplexed.

“I have a hard time imagining that outcome because even if the United States did nothing, I don’t imagine Israel will sit idly by. So I believe
something will happen first to interrupt Iran getting to that stage,” said Perry, who stressed that the negative repercussions of any attack on
Iran will be profound. “If I do imagine a nuclear-armed Iran and ask myself whether that problem is dangerous enough to warrant military
action, my answer is yes. That was my answer in 1994 in regard to North Korea, and that would be my answer today in regard to Iran.”

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