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After the Midterm Elections: Hawks Up the Pressure for Military Action and Obama Sets Iran Up for More Sanctions

Tony Karon has another sharp piece this week, entitled “Israel Pressed for a Tougher U.S. Line on Iran.”  For some time now, we have been forecasting an intensification of pressure on the Obama Administration, by Israel and pro-Israel constituencies in the United States, for U.S. military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

It appears that the Israeli government wasted no time, in the wake of the Democratic Party’s setbacks in last week’s midterm congressional elections in the United States, in taking that pressure up a notch; Tony’s piece duly notes media reports that, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Vice President Biden in New Orleans over the weekend, the Israeli leader told Biden that the United States needed to “create a credible threat of military action against [Iran] if it doesn’t cease its race for a nuclear weapon.”  Netanyahu’s motives, in Tony’s view, seem evident: “The Obama Administration and its allies are preparing to start a new round of negotiations with Iran, but the search for a diplomatic solution is bound to be protracted and its outcome is uncertain.  So, the Israelis are clearly looking to turn up the pressure on Obama to prepare for war with Iran.”

In commenting on the latest Israeli initiative, Tony underscores that “the call for military action — because the ‘threat’ of force can only be ‘credible’ with a demonstrable readiness to follow through — continues to arouse skepticism in the U.S. military establishment, in which the consequences of starting a war with Iran are deemed potentially more dangerous than any threat currently posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”  He also points out that “the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment is that while Iran is using its nuclear-energy program to give itself the means to produce nuclear weapons, it has made no decision to actually build such weapons.”  Furthermore, he echoes our arguments that “the Obama Administration would have neither a legal basis nor much international support beyond Israel for initiating a new war in the Middle East that could have disastrous consequences for regional security and for the world economy.”

These realities notwithstanding, Tony argues that the Israeli push for war is likely to be reinforced by the outcome of last week’s U.S. congressional elections, as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and other GOP senators and congressmen are pressing for a military confrontation with Iran.  Tony notes that “It’s already plain to see that being ‘soft on Tehran’ will be a key trope used by Republicans aiming to prevent President Obama’s re-election in 2012, and any attempt at engagement of any sort with Iran will likely bring relentless attacks on Capitol Hill.  That will certainly suit the Israeli leadership, who not only want to see a more confrontational U.S. position on Iran, but who also came into office insisting that Iran’s nuclear program, rather than peace with the Palestinians, should be Washington’s priority in the Middle East.”

What might this mean for the Obama Administration’s approach to another round of nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic?  On this point, we were interested to see a Huffington Post Op Ed, “Nuclear Deal with Iran All for Show,” by Emma Belcher, a former Australian official and scholar who is currently a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  We append some highlights below:

The Obama administration is preparing the ground for tougher sanctions on Iran by pushing to revive last year’s ill-fated fuel swap deal.  The renewed proposal to swap Iran’s low enriched uranium for research reactor fuel is not a serious attempt at engagement, as the United States knows it will likely fail.  Instead, it is intended to depict the United States as a reasonable negotiating partner, and Iran as a duplicitous state bent on obtaining the bomb at all costs.  This could increase support for harsher international sanctions that are more strictly implemented. . . .

If the new fuel swap deal is a serious attempt at engaging Iran, it is doomed to fail.  It will fall prey to the same dynamics that precluded a deal the first time around.  Iran has flatly rejected shipping significantly more than 1,200 kg of 3.5 percent enriched fuel abroad to account for its enrichment since the original proposal — a key element of the Administration’s new terms.  Moreover, Iranian leaders have turned Iran’s right to enrich uranium into a matter of national pride, and it is highly unlikely that they will agree to a deal that moves them closer to enrichment suspension negotiations.  Both Khamenei and the parliament have sent clear messages to this effect.

The timing is not ripe for such a deal, and the Obama administration cannot be blind to this reality.  It is reviving the deal as part of a broader strategy to strengthen support for sanctions implementation, and to further isolate Iran.  For an administration that believes in the power of sanctions, they are not as harsh as they could be.  Russia and China watered them down in the Security Council, and the United States is disappointed by the less-than-rigorous application by some, most notably Turkey.  The more Iran is seen to reject a reasonable deal, the more its peaceful intentions appear questionable.  Then, the United States can push for more thorough and sustained sanctions, with the eventual goal of bringing Iran back to the table.

Given the Obama Administration’s handling of the original proposal for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor and its duplicitous manipulation of Brazil and Turkey over the diplomatic initiative that ultimately produced the Tehran Declaration, we would agree with Ms. Belcher that there is no reason to assume U.S. “good faith” in approaching the next round of nuclear discussions with Iran.

But if Dennis Ross and other Administration officials have their way and U.S. negotiators try more such “too clever by half” tactics this time around, we are not so sure it will be the Islamic Republic which loses the resulting public relations battle.  Ms. Belcher, in the end, thinks that the Obama Administration’s anticipated gambit could be “a shrewd approach.”  We think that the lack of strategic seriousness — and, it increasingly seems, basic honesty — in the U.S. approach to nuclear diplomacy with Iran may be on the verge of eliciting serious international resistance.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 10 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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