Nicholas Burns

Obama’s opportunity in Iran

(Elaina Natario Photo Illustration)
By Nicholas Burns
October 1, 2009

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PRESIDENT OBAMA’S accusation that Iran has lied about a secret nuclear plant gives the United States the most important opportunity in years to pressure Tehran to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions. By drawing a “line in the sand,’’ the United States, France, and Britain now have the first substantial leverage to deploy when negotiations begin today with a suddenly defensive Ahmadinejad government.

When Obama took office, Iran was seemingly on a fast track to nuclear capability. The Bush administration’s offer of negotiations, in which I was involved, had fallen on deaf ears in Tehran. But a cascading series of events over the last few months have weakened the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama’s early offer to negotiate with Tehran coupled with global outrage over the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters after its disputed elections won back the moral high ground for the United States. Last week’s accusation that Iran tried to deceive the International Atomic Energy Agency elicited unprecedented criticism, even from Russia and China.

Still, the Obama administration faces a daunting set of barriers to diplomatic progress. Iran will be a formidable foe at the negotiations, the first serious talks between Washington and Tehran in 30 years. The negotiations will probably fail, as it will be extraordinarily difficult to convince the Ahmadinejad government to suspend uranium enrichment and give up its goal of a nuclear weapons capacity.

At home, the president’s conservative critics charge that his engagement policy has been naive, arguing the United States should return to a more confrontational strategy based on military force.

They could not be more mistaken. The president’s patient diplomatic pressure on Iran is a more sophisticated strategy with a better chance of actually arresting Iran’s nuclear efforts. Because of it, the United States has significantly greater credibility to take advantage of Iran’s mendacity and to lead an international coalition toward comprehensive sanctions should talks fail.

But, Obama must now turn to a more tough-minded policy. He should ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian government by moving from a strategy of engagement to one that combines continued negotiations, tough new inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the threat of much more powerful sanctions. To give diplomacy a greater chance of success and avoid a potentially catastrophic war, the president will need to juggle several competing challenges over the next few months.

First, he is smart to proceed with negotiations as they will work to America’s advantage in this marathon chess match with Iran. The administration is fully aware that talks may fail because of the Iranian government’s aversion to compromise. But if the United States does not talk to Iran, it will never know whether a peaceful outcome was possible. Given the risk of war with Iran in the next one to two years, the administration owes it to the nation to exhaust diplomacy. The United States will be no worse off if talks fail. In fact, it will then have much greater credibility to argue for a tougher international sanctions against the regime because it would have gone the extra mile for peace.

Second, Obama should restrain Israel from launching military strikes against Iran. Israel’s concerns over Iran’s growing power are fully understandable. But an Israeli use of military force could drag the United States into a third war that it cannot afford. With Iran in domestic turmoil, Israeli action might unwittingly rescue an unpopular Ahmadinejad by giving him an excuse to rally public support against an outside aggressor. The smarter strategy is to play on the growing divisions within the Iranian elite by delaying any use of force to see whether Ahmadinejad will be weakened by internal opposition to his increasingly erratic rule.

Third, the United States should prepare for much tougher sanctions against the Iranian government. This will be an uphill battle with Russia and China. For years, Russia has been the major provider of weapons to Iran while China has become Tehran’s leading trade partner. Their cynical, business-as-usual approach has rendered largely ineffective the three UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran that have been passed since 2006. As Obama has met China’s and Russia’s wish to meet Iran at the negotiating table, he will have every right to insist, if talks fail, that Beijing stop its growing energy business with Iran and Moscow end all arms sales and cease technical and financial support to Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor.

Finally, the Obama administration should move quickly to force Iran to choose between negotiations and confrontation. Of course, the United States and other countries would be right to offer Iran a way out of the crisis - the prospect, for example, of greater economic incentives and access to civilian nuclear power if it agrees to dismantle permanently its nuclear weapons efforts. But the United States should turn to harsh sanctions if, as expected, Iranian negotiators drag their feet in Geneva. The United States should demand intrusive inspections of all Iranian facilities by the IAEA, plan for greater international financial restrictions, and back the Senate’s interest in energy sanctions against Iran.

The United States could also strengthen its military ties to Israel and Iran’s neighbors as part of a wider effort to build a containment regime around Iran to limit its power and influence. This would provide a smarter, alternative strategy to an outright military conflict still too risky for American interests.

Having offered an olive branch to Tehran during the last nine months, Obama must now make unmistakably clear that the United States will be a very tough opponent in the months ahead. Whether he can succeed in turning up the heat will be a key factor in how this high-stakes drama plays out this autumn.

Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary for political affairs, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the board of directors of the school’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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