Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Cracking The Iranian Nuclear Dilemma: Does Success Run Through Kabul?

Posted by K.E. White on March 31, 2009

Today’s meeting between a top Iranian and American foreign minister is big news. But perhaps bigger than the historical nature of this official contact, is its delivery method. Choosing Holbrooke makes clear that the Obama administration is serious about improving relations with Iran, but that success might just first flow through Kabul—not DC or Tehran. While by no means a risk-free strategy, Obama’s determination to engage Iran and others does not merely set the stage of diplomacy (which might very well fail). Neo-conservative critics would do well to realize Obama’s strategy also sets the stage for possible punitive action against Iran.

The Holbrooke-Adhundzadeh meeting in the Netherlands marks the first high-level contacts between Tehran and the Obama administration. The unplanned and brief meeting described as “cordial.” But Iran mixed signals: having this positive development shaded by criticism of the White House’s recently unveiled Afghanistan plan and refusing to send high-level Iranian officials to the Dutch meeting.

Today’s meeting reminds us of just how difficult the Iranian dilemma remains for the Obama administration.  On one side are voices demanding tougher action on the Iranian regime—whether through a military strike or greater economic sanctions. To these voices engaging in high-level negotiations with Iran before it suspends its nuclear enrichment program only will embolden negative Iranian behaviors. First and foremost, America must negotiate from a position of strength—i.e. be tough on Iran.

Such an issue becomes more pressing with the possible transfer of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. There purpose? To deter an Israeli strike. Will this force Israel’s hand? (Probably not, at least right now, given the messy state of Israel’s newly confirmed Netanyahu government)

On the other side are calls for a fleshed out diplomatic plan. Such a plan requires a developed set of increasing consequences for Iranian defiance and clear carrots; coordination (currently lacking) between Russia, China and the United States; and, finally, a comprehensive approach, linking the Iranian nuclear dilemma with global nonproliferation in general.

But first it’s useful to illustrate just how far US-Iranian relations have a way to go. Today’s LA Times editorial page offers this message from Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

The policies of previous U.S. administrations led to a rise in hatred, anger and worries. In all corners of the world, it is worth noting, the only flags being set ablaze belong to the U.S. and the occupying Zionist regime. 

President Obama has proclaimed a policy of “change,” and the American people have embraced it. But to remedy its image in the world, the U.S. needs to truly change its past methods.

Change is mandatory for the U.S. administration. For as history demonstrates, either you change, or you are forced to change. 

But it seems that before picking between ‘dove’ or ‘hawk’ response, the Obama administration is buying time. And this is a smart move. Obama’s public message to Iran, presently cooler rhetoric and today’s brief diplomatic meeting all show an administration intent gathering a clearer picture of the Iranian dilemma.

Tightening the screws, a la Jim Bolton, now does not seem prudent. If the Obama administration can get time to chat with Russia and China over Iran and possibly change their stance on Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly the diplomatic calculus changes.

But laying the ground work for a coordinated diplomatic approach on Iran seems inexorably tied to Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan—and Pakistan. It’s no coincidence that Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy to for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was the chosen emissary. Beyond the procedural rationale (deputy ministers meet with deputy ministers), three messages were being conveyed:

-Attention-Grabber: Holbrooke brokered the Dayton Peace accords. A respected deal-maker initiating a converstation with an Iranian minister conveys status and respect to Iran. It also makes America appear inviting to dialogue with Iran.

-That United States is serious: Holbrooke earned his reputation for getting things done; Adhundzadeh agreed to keep in touch, a key means or communication and deal-making was opened.

-Muscle-Flexing: Choosing Holbrooke, the point-man for diplomatic strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan also holds a muscular, symbolic resonance. It signals the overlap of two Obama administration goals: victory in Afghanistan and improved Iranian relations.

This third component is the most important. Victory in Afghanistan, tied with a continuing presence in Iraq, seems to be the lynch-pin in the Obama administration’s attempt to mold dialogue with Iran from a position of strength:

1)      It puts Iranian aspirations for hegemony on note

2)      Allows Obama to frame future discussions with Iran from an image of strength, at least relative to the image of America in 2005-2006. In this light he is not only a dove to Bush hawk, but a dove who fights and wins.

3)      It strengthens the faith of our allies in the region that the United States will not simply cut a deal with Iran and jump ship

4)      It signals our priorities to other key nations—Russia and China—about what is important: chiefly Iran’s nuclear program. When this is tied other discussions—for example, discussions over missile defense with Russia or modernizing our nuclear arnsenals—deals can be made

In short, it allows the Obama administration—in conjunctions with many other moving parts—to both whip up the international support it needs for any diplomatic break-through and pushing (not begging) Iran to the negotiating table.

Now neoconservative voices, such as John Bolton, may disagree with this ‘doveish’ approach. But what these voices fail to recognize is that these steps are also needed to make punitive action against Iran—whether through economic sanctions or military strikes—work.

Sanctions only work if they are enforced. Attempting to win Russian support, tied with greater efforts at screening supplies that go through Gulf States are key to 1) punishing Iran economically and 2) keeping dangerous materials out of Iran.

Furthermore any military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities are more likely to succeed with support—however mild from major powers. If a military strike is seen by countries as a unilateral power grab on the part of America, American stature and partnerships will be seriously damaged. But if over time the Obama administration can successfully turn the narrative to patiently dealing with a ‘bully’ state consequences of military action—while severe—will be minimized.

Success with Iran—whether through tough-talk & proxy competitions for influence (Iraq and Afghanistan) or military strikes (most likely through Israel, but seen as green-lit by the United States)—both require the moves the Obama administration is making.

Make no mistake: Obama is taking a big gamble. In putting his chips on Afghanistan, it has become his war—one with little support in the United States. And some suggest he’s doing this on the cheap. If Obama’s Afpak strategy does not work, pushing Iran back from the bomb—let alone our allies in the region—will become more difficult.

But some critics of diplomatic accommodation may point to the issue of time. Is there time to put all these moving parts in place before Iran builds the Bomb? I believe such an objection is a red herring.

A premptive military strike against Iran will not stop an Iranian nuclear weapon, but guarantee it. And done brusquely, such a strike will diminish America’s ability to a) stop nuclear proliferation worldwide and b) hurt America’s standing in the region irrevocably, let alone predictable flare-ups in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Keeping materials out of Iran is the key, along with a robust inspection force. Getting there requires cooperation (yes, from a position of strength), not preemptive military action.

To get there, the Obama administration must work with the time it has.

And the administration needs success in Afghanistan, ideally paired with stability in Paksitan.

Even if this ‘tough-diplomacy’ does not fail to deter Iran from virtually possessing or acquiring an operational atomic weapon, it places America in the best position possible to justify action against Iran.  The Obama administration is taking a breath and insuring America the widest possible range of action possible: something we should be thankful for.

Let’s just hope the Afghanistan gamble pays off.

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