New Iran report reeks of stale ideas
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
United States President Barack Obama may be puzzled as to how to initiate
dialogue with Iran, but there are a wealth of pro-Israel pundits advising him
in Washington who are crystal clear on the method, purpose and goals of such an
approach. These advisors are now attempting to win Obama's approval over
certain competing perspectives.
This much is clear from a report by a new "bipartisan" group tailored to assist
the Obama administration's formation of a new Iran policy. The new paper fails
to present any fresh or innovative ideas with respect to Iran's nuclear
standoff, a shortfall that
inevitably casts further doubts on one of its signatories, Dennis Ross, who is
Washington's point man on Iran.
Although it was not commissioned by the past or present White House, the
report, titled "Preventing a cascade of instability: US engagement to check
Iranian nuclear progress," carries a badge of legitimacy under the
"Presidential Task Force". It is, in fact, the work of a pro-Israel think-tank,
the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, that operates as an important
arm of the Jewish lobby in Washington. 
Thick on familiar accusations against Iran and rather thin on the much-needed
specifics of a new US policy toward a Middle East country that has stood up to
US hegemony for the past 30 years, the report's main value is in showing the
hands of vested interests that actually seek to obviate Obama's search for new
ways to deal with Iran. The report simply rehashes the main patterns of
Averse to any rapprochement between the US and Iran that is short of Iran's
capitulation, to their demands, the pro-Israel lobby is now focused on creating
lackadaisical atrophy in Obama's evolving Iran policy by, among other efforts,
depicting Iran in a hostile light.
The report presents no clue about what Iran wants; specifically the underlying
Iranian concern for autonomy, economic capability and political legitimacy.
Arguing that the US should ditch bilateral talks in favor of a multilateral
approach toward Iran, the report's faith in multilateralism is noble. Yet the
stance undercuts White House efforts to advance the arch of US-Iran dialogue.
Its argument that bilateral talk runs the risk of sowing division in the ranks
of "Iran Six" nations (that is, the UN Security Council's Permanent Five - The
US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China - plus Germany) is nonsense, as
if there cannot be a complementary symbiosis between the two strategies.
Filled with conjecture, the report castigates the US government for "agreeing"
to Iran's sole nuclear power plant in Bushehr, thus dispensing with the
argument that under the articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
Iran is entitled to civilian nuclear energy, particularly after Iran and Russia
agreed on the return of spent fuel to Russia.
Even as reports are surfacing that Obama had sent a letter to the Kremlin
allegedly offering to scrap a US missile defense system in Eastern Europe in
exchange for Moscow's "cooperation on Iran's nuclear program", the implicit
message of this report is that Obama should reverse his predecessor's
acquiescence to Iran's possession of civil nuclear reactors.
Although during the George W Bush era some former officials tilted in favor of
a "limited enrichment" program in Iran, this report pushes for ending the
program and warns the White House to keep away from any action that would
legitimize an enrichment program "on Iranian soil".
How can the US possibly convince Iran to dismantle an expensive program that
serves as a source of national pride? The report's answer runs the familiar
trajectory of longer sticks and bigger carrots. The "cascade paper" calls for
stronger Washington leverages against Tehran, including tougher sanctions on
areas of vulnerability, such as dependence on imported gasoline.
Other proposed leverages include expanding the role of the UN Security
Council's committee on sanctions on Iran, and enhancing the missile defense
capability of Iran's neighbors in the Persian Gulf. On the carrot side, the
report proposes a broad counter-proliferation approach that would ease Iran's
fear of regional foes, the establishment of an international fuel bank that
would guarantee uninterrupted delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran's reactors, and
a fissile material cut-off treaty.
These are not, however, workable ideas. A fuel bank is an admirable idea that
is unlikely to materialize any time soon, nor is the signing of a fissile
material cut-off treaty realistic for quite some time. The report's assumption
that Iran can somehow be convinced to stop its NPT-sanctioned nuclear fuel
cycle for the sake of vague promises about the future is inherently
Equally unreasonable is the report's assumption that "Iran having a latent
capability to quickly make nuclear weapons could lead to much the same risk of
cascading instability as an Iran with an actual weapon". This is the report's
main flaw: abandoning the important and policy-relevant distinction between
latent and manifest nuclear capability.
Conflating Iran's nuclear capability
Intent on making sure that Iran "does not achieve military nuclear capability",
the authors of the report consistently claim that it makes no difference if
Iran was nuclear-weapon capable or "actually possessed" the bombs.
Nightmare scenarios - such as Iran intimidating and bullying its neighbors and
even subverting them - were drawn from both positions in the report.
Attributing hegemonic intentions to Iran's "nuclear ambitions", the authors
provide a checklist of possible US counter-measures to "deter" Iran. The report
even toys with the idea of "extended deterrence" by providing a nuclear
"umbrella" for US-friendly states in the region; the implicit argument being
that Israel should be allowed to rely on the nuclear card in its dealing with
regional threats against it.
Unsurprisingly, the report does not mention the UN's idea of a nuclear free
zone in the Middle East - which the US has endorsed in the past. Instead, the
paper recommends actions that, in the name of counter-proliferation, actually
fuel further nuclearization of the volatile region.
Such contradictions are the outcome of a perverse security logic that is
blinded to the negative implications of its proposed recipes for increasing
Case in point: although the report calls for enhancing the missile systems of
Israel and Iran's neighbors in the Persian Gulf, claiming that this will
"introduce uncertainty into the minds of Iranian leaders about the military
ability of Iran's nuclear and missile programs", the net result will actually
be the exact opposite of its intended consequences. By exacerbating Iran's
security worries, such steps would spur Tehran to offset perceived imbalances
in the regional arms race any way possible.
One reason the report makes facile conclusions about Iran's reactions to
various scenarios is that it operates based on a restrictive methodology that
disregards qualitative differences between the manifest and latent nuclear
status of the country. This misrepresentation renders moot the question of what
can be gained as a result of the meaningful inclusion of Iran in a regional
Despite the number of US policy experts who have advised the US to include Iran
in a regional security infrastructure, this report falls well shy of such a
recommendation and confines itself to simply "including" Iran in talks on
regional security. The report adds that such talks will "perhaps eventually"
lead to "some form of mutual security assurances advantageous to Iran, the
region and the United States - for instance, about the free flow of shipping
through the Strait of Hormuz". It also cites "common concerns" between US and
Iran, such as "piracy and smuggling in Persian Gulf".
Completely absent in the report is any meaningful insight about Iran's own
perception of security threats, proximate and long term. Such a consideration
may have alerted the report's authors to the fact that Iran has an issue with
the tacit portrayal of the Persian Gulf as American turf, and as a result
Tehran is unlikely to enter into any agreement on Persian Gulf matters with the
US or any Western power it deems as external and uninvited.
Another important side-effect of conflating the latent and manifest nuclear
capability of Iran in this report is that it overlooks the likely result of its
recommended pressure tactics, such as subjecting the nation to imported refined
fuel sanctions. Such a move could easily backfire not only with the government
but also the Iranian nation, emboldening the position of Iran's hardliners who
may be pushing for a nuclear deterrent.
An important pre-requisite for any US initiative aimed at a breakthrough in the
Iranian nuclear standoff is sadly lacking - namely, a genuine understanding of
Iran's national security mindset and the wealth of variables inherent in the
twin options of manifest and latent nuclear capability.
This report is inundated with dubious assumptions about what Iran is likely to
do with a nuclear weapon, such as "portray itself as the voice of Islam".
Doesn't Pakistan, the first Islamic state in modern times, possess a relatively
large nuclear arsenal and, therefore, wouldn't such an attempt by Iran be
Making predictions about Iran's aggressive behavior in the future based on
questionable assumptions simply does not wash. It would be a pity if the Obama
administration overlooked the egregious shortcomings of this report and adopted
If it does, the Obama administration will be following a recipe for failure
instead of a breakthrough in relations. This report pays minimal attention to
the role of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), completely
underestimating the importance of a robust inspection regime that would
safeguard the latency of Iran's nuclear capability.
The report does not bother with the positive results of Iran's cooperation with
the IAEA, such as the fact that due to a recent workplan nearly all the
outstanding issues were successfully resolved in Iran's favor, or the fact that
although Iran has officially put on hold the intrusive Additional Protocol of
the NPT, Iran has allowed so many unannounced visits and "complementary"
inspections of facilities by the IAEA, its openness has amounted to a de facto
implementation of important provisions of the protocol.
Tehran is keeping the re-adoption of the Additional Protocol as leverage in
nuclear negotiations. This possibility will be lost by the Obama administration
if it foolishly adopts misguided and highly defective policy recommendations
that simply serve Israel's narrow interests.
It is worth considering if Israel is not better served by opting for
alternative courses of actions to address Iran's security anxieties and thus
preventing the cascading of Iran's latent nuclear potential into manifest
This is an important question facing Washington today.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.