The next phase of U.S. strategy on Iran

The intelligence community’s views should be familiar. They have not changed much in three years: Iran’s leadership is internally divided, under severe pressure from U.S.-led international sanctions and – most importantly – undecided on whether to build a nuclear weapon. Expanding on a judgment first expressed in a Bush-era National Intelligence Estimate from 2007, Clapper recently reaffirmed that “Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.”

It is precisely this decision-making process that the U.S. and its allies are attempting to influence. In a strategic break with the past, the president made engagement with Iran a top priority. The effort did not convince Iran to negotiate, but it did convince U.S. allies and friends to increase the pressure when Iran balked. In June, the White House pushed through the U.N. Security Council the toughest set of sanctions ever leveled against a state. Follow-on diplomacy sparked similar sanctions from the European Union, South Korea, Japan, India and others. As a result of its nuclear intransigence, Iran finds itself almost as politically isolated as apartheid-era South Africa.

Moreover, it has slowed Iran’s nuclear clock. The sanctions have made it much more difficult for Iran to purchase key materials for the program—including parts to replace the over one thousand centrifuges destroyed by the Stuxnet virus cyber attack last year. It’s no wonder that Israel’s ex-intelligence chief Meir Dagan stated this January that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon until at least 2015.

So we have time. The question now is what to do with it.

First, do no harm. Some members of Congress have urged harsher U.S. unilateral sanctions. This would only dissolve the broad international coalition against Iran, thereby reducing the pressure. Others have gone so far as to urge military action. But as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed, “a military solution … will bring together a divided nation. It will make [Iran] absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons. And they will just go deeper and more covert.” Both these paths make an Iranian nuclear weapon easier, not harder.

Second, turn up the engagement. The point of this pressure, after all, is to get Iran to the negotiating table. As a recent report by the Henry L. Stimson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace urges, “U.S. and European leaders should communicate a comprehensive picture of what Tehran has to gain from a mutually acceptable agreement.” In other words, the Iranian regime will need a face-saving way out of this crisis. Pressure without a path goes nowhere.

Third, think creatively. In fall 2009, the U.S. and its allies proposed exchanging a significant portion of Iran’s enriched low-enriched uranium for an equivalent amount of uranium isotopes necessary for medical purposes. It failed, but a similar deal could still be on the table. Charles Ferguson of the Federation of American Scientists has proposed a number of ways to increase confidence and transparency. And just last week Secretary Clinton outlined a joint U.S.-Swedish proposal for a U.N. human rights monitor on Iran, supported by twenty-four U.S. Senators. Whether carrot or stick, only creativity will break this longstanding impasse.

The United States has built – and held together – a broad international coalition focused on bringing Iran’s nuclear program in line with its international obligations. As Director Clapper will make clear today, we have time to change the regime’s strategic calculus if we do it right. The key for the United States is to develop a robust diplomatic push commensurate to the challenge.

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. Rob Leonard is its government affairs representative. 

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