February 15, 2010

With Iran, No Easy Option

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Team Iran, the current members of which are undersigned, has been monitoring developments in Iran and its relations with the rest of the world since December 2006. We find that the more one studies the diplomacy connected to Iran’s nuclear program, the more clearly one sees the danger of the situation. It is a game of chicken. The possibility looms that neither Iran nor its adversaries will swerve away at the last minute.

After meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May, President Obama demanded progress toward an arrangement guaranteeing that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. If Iran made no progress toward achieving this goal by September, the President threatened sanctions, a policy stance firmly supported by his advisors, his Secretary of State and key European countries. Iran’s ruling elite, faced with widespread domestic protests challenging the validity of President Ahmadinejad’s victory in the June elections, has found itself with a minority faction who sympathize with the protesters.

The emergence of such divisions has produced, however, not concessions but a provocative defiance of the West: the promise to build 10 more nuclear enrichment centers. Europeans offered a deal whereby Iranian uranium would be exported to Russia, who would then give it to France to turn into pellets used for energy or medical research but are impossible to weaponize. Iran first accepted the deal, then rejected it two weeks ago. On Feb. 1 a formal letter of notification to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated Iran’s intention to enrich to 20 percent, up from the previous level of about five percent. (At least 90 percent pure U-235 is needed for a bomb).

The Europeans and Americans, receiving support from the IAEA, are convinced that the only option available to them now is further sanctions. On Feb. 8, when Secretary of Defense Gates and French President Sarkozy met in Paris, they responded to the Iranian notice by calling for “strong measures.” President Obama has since made a similar statement, in equally forceful language.

The problem is that sanctions will not work. Most policymakers and advisors know this, even if an assortment of fixed opinions prevent them from admitting it. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to design sanctions that will affect only the all-powerful Revolutionary Guard and the circle of advisors to the Supreme Leader while leaving the Iranian people unscathed. And to further complicate matters, China is unlikely to cooperate in any attempt to place sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, the Israelis hold to their end-of-the-year deadline: they said last month that they can imagine letting a regime of effectively imposed and “targeted” sanctions attempt results “for a few months” past December 31, 2009, but no longer than that. A “few months” does not take us past the coming summer.

Helping to push the chicken game along is the fact that few inside the Beltway have given much attention to Gen. John Abizaid, former head of Central Command (Middle East), who has been saying for months that we need to think about living with a nuclear Iran, i.e., consider the case for stabilization by armed deterrence. Nor has the mainstream American press given any space at all to Gen. Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier and a former prime minister, who said in September 2009 that a nuclear-armed Iran would “not pose an existential threat” to Israel.

Instead, no one can think beyond the idea that, “if no effective sanctions, we take military action.” Yet military action, such as a strike on the Natanz, Arak, or Qom facilities, would have little chance of doing anything but provoking retaliations against the U.S. and its allies. The Iranian Green Movement protesters, opponents of the regime but also Iranian patriots, would mostly rally to the Iranian government. We would face a sharply increased number of dead Americans in Iraq, Iranian missiles taking out oil facilities across the Persian Gulf and $10 per gallon gas. Israelis can expect Hezbollah, still very much Iran’s creature, to make a range of destructive responses.

Some experts have called for a focus not on quickly shutting down Iran’s nuclear program but on regime change. Others call for a serious attempt to integrate Iran into the international system with a recognition of its political, material and cultural power. Neither proposal got much notice on Thursday, Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Shah’s fall in 1979, which Iran, as before, devoted to triumphalist manifestos.

Yeats’ poem, “Second Coming,” perhaps best expresses the feeling of foreboding that is tightening its grip on Iran-watchers. The falcons are in charge, and they are turning and turning in the widening gyre, not hearing the falconer at all. The “ blood-dimmed tide” is loosed — not only in Iran — and the ceremony of innocence was drowned long ago. The doves lack all conviction — most also lack vision, courage or supporters — and the worst (and least imaginative) are indeed full of passionate intensity. Things fall apart. A hot summer glimmers.

John H. Weiss, Associate Professor of History

Willimina Bromer ’10, former Sun news editor

Gabriel Dobbs ’10, former Sun columnist

Ryan Engler ’10

Jennifer Fishkin ’10

Christopher Frommann ’09

Ian Gillen ’10

Jacob Goldstein ’10

Bruce Hamlin ’10

Suk Chun Kwak ’10

Elizabeth Loftus ’10

Michael McCormack ’09

Nicholas Murray ’11

Antonio Pietrantoni ’10

Fuat Yurekli ’10

Team Iran is a campus group focusing on current events in Iran. It can be contacted through John H. Weiss at jhw4@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Team Iran