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"Iran unfolds its fist to slap us in the face"

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands prior to a welcoming ceremony for President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdes, unseen, at the presidency, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010.
AP Images

"Iran unfolds its fist to slap us in the face"

Op-Ed, Boston Globe

February 4, 2010

Author: William H. Tobey, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

 

LAST MONTH, an important deadline passed in nuclear negotiations with Iran, eroding the foundation of the Obama administration's policy on Iran: that a softer approach might pay off; and, failing that, it would induce tougher action by Russia and China.

The deadline was for Iran to show progress, but Tehran has refused to talk much at all about nuclear issues. Negotiators have met only twice to discuss a side issue, a proposed uranium swap to refuel Tehran's research reactor.

Meanwhile over the past year, Iran doubled its production of enriched uranium, was revealed to be building a covert enrichment site at Qom, and threatened to build 10 more plants - despite UN Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend enrichment activities.

What of efforts to seek cooperation by Russia and China? Obama hit "the reset button'' and abrogated missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to appease Moscow. For Beijing, he snubbed a fellow Nobel laureate, the Dalai Lama. In return, Moscow and Beijing are tag-teaming to block action on Iran. Until recently, Russia was most obdurate. But as the deadline for progress expired, the United States sought to rally united efforts against Iran; China blocked any new measures and the talks ended in disarray.

Neither Russia nor China sees a nuclear armed Iran as a threat. All other things being equal, they might prefer Tehran's ayatollahs not to control nuclear weapons, but all other things are not equal. Beijing wants access to oil and gas. Moscow wants to rebuild a geostrategic position in the Middle East, sell conventional arms and nuclear reactors to Iran, and foster a regional power capable of standing up to the United States.

If key administration assumptions about Iran have proven false, what now? First, Obama must engage his key counterparts. French President Sarkozy was almost apoplectic at the irony of last September's UN Security Council meeting by heads of state on nuclear nonproliferation, which virtually ignored Iran. If Obama does not engage personally on the matter, his upcoming nuclear security summit and the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference will be haunted by the specter of a nuclear armed Iran, and the failure of leading states to resist it.

Second, we must not be stymied from attempting the "crippling sanctions'' promised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. True, it would be better to have Russia and China's support, but as Obama said, "we're not going to have talks forever.'' In the financial sector, the United States, Europe, and Japan play a leading role, and can severely affect travel, trade, and investment in Iran. Squeezing Iran's gasoline imports would also create new leverage, beyond Iran's Republican Guard. While it backs the nuclear effort, the Republican Guard is a hard target; we need to impose costs on new groups with influence inside Iran who will oppose development of nuclear weapons based on self interest.

Third, Tehran's refusal to negotiate should free us of self-censorship on human rights. The administration decided that a freedom agenda would complicate nuclear negotiations -a cold-blooded calculus. But, the nuclear negotiations do not exist. The administration also feared undermining dissidents with US support; that argument withers before Iranian crowds chanting, "Obama are you with us, or are you with them?'' Breaking the ayatollahs' hold on power may be the only way to reverse an Iranian nuclear weapons program. While there is now broad support within Iran for nuclear technology, new leaders seeking cooperation from abroad would likely reconsider pursuing weapons. Conversely, dissidents must know that if Tehran's regime attains nuclear weapons, it will become even more adamantine.

Finally, missile defense and human rights policies should be settled on their own merits. US concessions failed to secure help from Moscow and Beijing. Rather, they signaled that the Iranian nuclear issue is a source of leverage over Washington, and is worth sustaining to extract further concessions.

These steps alone may be insufficient to reverse Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Given his stated belief that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable, Obama may face further hard choices. But, our present course on Iran will surely fail.

Iran has unclenched its fist to slap us in the face. It is time to wake up.

 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Tobey, William H. "Iran unfolds its fist to slap us in the face." Boston Globe, February 4, 2010.

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