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Responding to Iran: It's a matter of vision
Dealing with Iran’s nuclear program will be one of the most pressing foreign policy issues facing Barack Obama as he begins his second term. While the focus thus far has been on whether America is ready to go to war if aggressive economic sanctions fail to bend Iran’s will, his administration should also prepare to deal with the sanctions’ potential success. There’s evidence that the measures are seriously hurting Iran’s economy, and that this is changing Tehran’s posture. What will Mr. Obama do if Iran agrees to negotiate?
Last year, the U.S. and its allies started direct talks with Iran. There was no breakthrough, and then diplomacy stalled as the Obama administration turned its attention to elections at home. Meantime, Iran’s economy buckled under pressure, with the rial losing 80 per cent of its value. That has raised the expectation that Iran may be finally ready to negotiate. Now, Washington will need to be ready with a clear diplomatic strategy.
We know what the elements of a deal look like. The U.S. wants Iran to limit its enrichment activity to no more than 5 per cent, if not completely end enrichment, to relinquish its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium, to close down its deep underground secret facilities, to open its nuclear activities to intrusive United Nations inspections, and to provide guarantees that they will not build nuclear weapons. Iran, in turn, wants recognition of its right to enrichment, and the lifting of economic sanctions.
The challenge is that these negotiations will be long and tedious, and can’t be conducted in a vacuum. There will be gains and setbacks. Israel and Arab allies will apply pressure. Then there’s an increasingly complex and worrying regional dynamic to contend with: the faltering Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya; the disintegration of Syria; and the radicalization and rise of al-Qaeda in North Africa.
Mr. Obama can’t implement a strategy with Iran isolated from the rest of the region. Successful diplomatic negotiations with Iran, therefore, require a new American Middle East strategy.
This must include re-engagement with the Arab world, economic support for the newly democratic states of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process, confronting rising radical extremism, articulating a clear endgame for the Syrian conflict, and recognizing that military action against Iran will inflame the region and lead to greater instability.
More important, however, these policies must fit within a broader strategic vision. Since 9/11, we have seen competing narratives for America’s role in the Middle East, including stability, counterterrorism and democracy promotion. Mr. Obama needs to define a clear vision through which he will implement a new Middle Eastern strategy, and which will frame potential negotiations with Iran.
Mr. Obama does not have unlimited time to develop such a strategic vision. For one, the current level of sanctions can’t persist forever. Intense economic pressure is effective in the short run, but the removal of Iranian oil from the global market will ultimately have a significant impact on the global economy.
What’s more, if the Iranians decide they can’t live with the current level of sanctions or believe that the U.S. is not prepared to make a deal, then we may see more aggressive retaliation to break the logjam, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz.
The international community could also tire. The Russians and Chinese signed on to sanctions to get Iran to the table. If we don’t deal with them, and don’t have a diplomatic strategy, then they might walk away. Both are also tied up in the protracted conflict in Syria, and will be looking at Iran through Bashar al-Assad’s lens.
In the end, then, Mr. Obama needs to make a bold move, and quickly. While his strategy of harsh sanctions satisfied the American electorate and has likely moved Iran closer to the negotiating table, successful resolution of this conflict, as well as the interrelated regional crises, requires a new vision for Middle East policy.
The key question for the new Obama administration is not what happens if the Iranian sanctions fail, but what happens if they succeed.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born American, is dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. The author of The Shia Revival and Democracy in Iran, he sits on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board and served as senior advisor to the late Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan until 2011. He will be in Toronto on Nov. 26 to take part in the Munk Debate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Responding to Iran: It's a matter of trust
During the final U.S. presidential debate, which focused on foreign policy, President Barack Obama mentioned Israel no fewer than 17 times. He reiterated once again the message that he has repeated throughout his presidency: Israel is a true friend and the greatest U.S. ally in the region. He also repeated his commitment to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Some argue that the President’s statements should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that they were made during a close election campaign and that Mr. Obama was intent on wooing both the Jewish and evangelical vote. Now that he has been re-elected, the question becomes: Can Israel take the President at his word and rely on his promises regarding Iran?
A nuclear bomb is not only a threat to Israeli security but also to U.S. national security. Mr. Obama has made this clear and, since taking office in 2009, has consistently warned against the grave ramifications of a nuclear-armed Iran. In an effort to force Iran to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons drive, the President has painstakingly cobbled together an international coalition that has imposed the most crippling sanctions against Iran to date, built up a highly visible U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, developed a regional missile defence system and, according to reports in leading Western media outlets, engaged in covert action aimed at delaying the nuclear program.
Yet, despite sharing the same strategic goal and pool of intelligence on Iran, the U.S. and Israel have developed materially different approaches to the resolution of this crisis. How is it that two countries that agree so wholeheartedly on an issue’s beginning and end points do not agree on what comes between? The differences stem from three areas.
Different traumas: Israel sees the threat posed by Iran, in part, through the prism of the Holocaust. The Iranian regime’s threats to wipe Israel off the map resonate of the propaganda expounded by the Nazi regime. The U.S. trauma, on the other hand, is the highly controversial and costly war in Iraq. Amid its drawn-out war in Afghanistan, the U.S. public and leadership are unlikely to stomach yet another war in a Muslim nation.
Different timetables: Israel maintains that the past decade is proof of diplomacy’s failure to stop Iranian nuclear ambitions. The U.S., however, contends there are indications that diplomacy has begun to influence the regime in Tehran. Whereas Israel’s clock on military action is ticking, the superior operational capabilities of the U.S. military allow it to wait another year or two before these Iranian nuclear sites become “immune” to an American attack. Furthermore, Israel has said it can’t allow Iran the capability to build a nuclear weapon, whereas the U.S. “red line” is an actual Iranian breakout for a weapon. Israel fears that, once Iran achieves this capability, it may be too late to stop any breakout.
Different realities: The U.S. is more than 440 times the size of Israel, with a population that is more than 40 times as large. Washington lies about 10,000 kilometres away from Tehran – well out of Iranian missile range – compared with the roughly 1,500 kilometres between Tehran and Tel Aviv – well within Iranian missile range. The U.S., the world’s only superpower, is armed with an exponentially larger military, has the largest economy in the world, and wields much greater diplomatic clout. These drastically different parameters not only generate different perceptions of the Iranian threat, but also provide the U.S. with significantly more deterrence.
Given these serious differences between the U.S. and Israel, only trust between the leaders can align their strategies to achieve the common goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb. Mr. Obama and whoever will be elected Israeli prime minister in January must work to build the trust between them. Significantly, Israel has not asked the U.S. for a “green light” to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. If necessary, and only as a last resort, Israel can attack alone.
Yet, if Mr. Obama believes there’s still time for diplomacy and sanctions to prevent Iran from being able to break out toward a nuclear weapon, Israel must trust the President and his pre-election commitments. Washington and Jerusalem would do well to work together to generate a new sense of trust.
Major-General (ret.) Amos Yadlin is former head of military intelligence for the Israel Defence Forces. He will be in Toronto on Nov. 26 to take part in the Munk Debate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.