For a New Approach to Iran

William Luers, Thomas R. Pickering, and Jim Walsh, “For a New Approach to Iran,” The New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013

My administration is now committed to diplomacy…and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
—President Obama, March 2009

Could this be the year for an engagement with Iran that “is honest and grounded in mutual respect,” as President Obama proposed over four years ago? That goal seems unlikely without a shift in Iranian thinking and without a change in American diplomatic and political strategy. But two developments, one in Iran and one in the region, provide reason to think that diplomatic progress might be possible.

The first is Iran’s recent presidential election, which Hassan Rouhani won thanks to an alliance between Iran’s reformist and moderate camps. Together with the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this may provide the Obama administration the chance to start a new phase of relations with Iran. The second development is the war in Syria, which has the potential to grow into a region-wide Shia–Sunni conflict. This poses a direct threat to Iran’s vital interests, giving Tehran an incentive to reduce tensions with the international community. …

Is it making a nuclear weapon? Contrary to some opinions, intelligence estimates from the US, Israel, and other nations conclude that Iran’s Supreme Leader has not made the decision to build a bomb. Iran did have elements of a nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, but the Supreme Leader shut those down in 2003. Since then, the Islamic Republic has continued to increase its capability for enrichment but has not—as far as we know—restarted a weapons program. As the director for national intelligence, James Clapper, has twice testified:

We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons…. We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.(Emphasis added)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors all of Iran’s declared enrichment facilities and makes regular on-site inspections, reports that there is no evidence that Iran has diverted any of the uranium that is under the surveillance of the IAEA for possible further enrichment to weapons-grade material. In what appears to be an act of voluntary restraint, Iran has not enriched any uranium beyond 20 percent, while to produce a nuclear weapon would require enrichment to roughly 90 percent. This stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium now amounts to 180 kilograms, which if it were increased to 240 kilograms and if it were further enriched to weapons grade would be enough for one nuclear weapon. Clapper has also testified that Iran “could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU [weapons-grade uranium] before this activity is discovered.”

The most recent quarterly report of the IAEA, which provides new estimates of Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium, states that Iran is installing, but not yet operating, new and more efficient centrifuges. The IAEA continues to express frustration that it has been unable to obtain the information it wants about Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear program. There is increasing concern about a heavy water production plant and reactor at Arak, a potential source for plutonium scheduled to begin operating within the year.

In summary, there is no evidence that Iran has made a decision to build nuclear weapons, but it has the basic ability to do so. It can enrich uranium, was given a bomb design by A.Q. Kahn’s network, and likely engaged in some explosives testing for an implosion device, based on the principle of compressing nuclear fuel so that its density increases (as was the case with the bomb used at Nagasaki). The US and other governments have said that it would take Iran at least a year to go from a weapons decision to a usable weapon. Iran’s nuclear program could continue to expand if it can successfully utilize an advanced centrifuge design or bring the Arak reactor on line and develop a reprocessing capability to separate plutonium from the spent fuel. Iran has not resolved questions about its past nuclear activities, but its current program is under intense international scrutiny.

While Washington is seriously concerned about Iran’s nuclear intentions, Tehran has its own, different suspicions. Iran’s leaders say they are convinced that America’s real intention is to eliminate their regime. Both sides would have a better chance of reaching an acceptable, transparent, and enforceable deal if they stuck to the facts, rather than relying on unverifiable speculation about the other’s intentions. …

Some advocates of coercive diplomacy argue that such an approach helped President Kennedy pressure Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba. But a final agreement was reached when Kennedy gave Khrushchev a face-saving exit and offered to withdraw America’s Jupiter missiles from Turkey. A few years earlier, when China shelled the islands of Matsu and Quemoy in an attempt to intimidate and threaten Taiwan, President Eisenhower demonstrated his own desire to avoid ultimatums. Rather than define the point at which the US would take military action, he said that he would “just confuse” the press when asked what he intended to do.

Ike took to heart Clausewitz’s insight that a nation fighting for survival will persevere regardless of pressure. More coercion will only reinforce the belief among Iran’s leaders that America’s goal remains destruction of the regime, hardening their resistance and making diplomatic progress less attainable. On military action, it is worth remembering what President Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said in the 1990s about the Vietnam War. What surprised him most, he acknowledged, was “the endurance of the enemy.” Bundy admitted that he had placed too much faith in “the power of coercion.”…

If the United States is to reach an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program, Washington will have to develop new approaches to thinking about Iran. The administration should recall JFK’s charge fifty years ago for Americans “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” There is yet time for diplomacy, but the longer real negotiations are delayed, the greater is the risk of conflict in the increasingly violent environment of the Middle East. Delays could well result in a further loss of trust and misunderstanding and digging in on both sides. This in turn would make a mutually acceptable outcome more difficult.

The opportunities described in this article are not likely to appear again. This is very much the year to achieve the goal set out by President Obama four years ago of “honest engagement” leading to success.

Read the full article here.