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     Mar 6, 2009
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. [1]

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 previous policies.

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 problematic.
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 regional security.

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 security dialogue.

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 rather silly?

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 it.

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 capability.

This is an important question facing Washington today.

1. Preventing a Cascade of Instability: US Engagement to Check Iranian Nuclear Progress by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2009.

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 latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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