WASHINGTON - The administration of United States President Barack Obama should
pursue a policy of "strategic engagement" with Iran that would offer Tehran
more attractive incentives to curb its nuclear program, according to a study
group convened by two centrist Washington think-tanks.
The group, which included more than 40 recognized Iran, foreign policy and
non-proliferation experts, also warned that a military attack, either by the US
or Israel, on Iran would prove counter-productive in virtually every respect.
"A US decision to attack Iran, absent compelling evidence of an imminent
Iranian attack on a US ally or facility, would destabilize the entire Middle
East in ways that could do grave harm to US strategic, economic and political
interests, alienate the entire
Muslim world, fracture the coalition that has imposed sanctions on Iran, cement
Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons and doom the democratic
movement in Iran indefinitely," according to the 77-page report, "Engagement,
Coercion, and Iran's Nuclear Challenge".
Moreover, it went on, Washington "should avoid any reference to the possibility
of a preventive war or air strikes. US military capabilities are well known.
Reminding Iran of them only strengthens the arguments of those in Tehran who
press for acquiring nuclear weapons."
The report, which was released by the study group's conveners, the
congressionally-funded US Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Stimson Center,
comes amid indications that Israel and its allies in Washington are preparing a
major new campaign to persuade Obama to take a tougher line with Tehran if
sanctions and current diplomatic efforts fail to curb its nuclear program by
"If the international community, led by the United States, hopes to stop Iran's
nuclear program without resorting to military action, it will have to convince
Iran that it is prepared to take such action," Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu told a meeting of Jewish heavyweights in New Orleans last week
shortly after reportedly delivering the same message privately to Vice
President Joe Biden. "Containment will not work against Iran."
His remarks were followed by a column in this week's influential Defense News
by one of Netanyahu's advisers, Efraim Inbar, a political scientist of Israel's
Bar-Ilan University, in which he pronounced diplomacy dead and concluded that
"only military action can prevent the descent of the greater Mideast into a
very brutish region".
At the same time, several Republican lawmakers closely associated with the
right-wing leadership of the so-called "Israel Lobby" echoed his calls for a
more confrontational stance.
In remarks to the annual Halifax International Security Forum and celebrated at
length in this week's neo-conservative Weekly Standard, Senator Lindsey Graham
said Obama would help his own re-election chances in 2012 if he made
"abundantly clear that all options [for halting Iran's nuclear program] are on
the table" - a phrase that is associated with taking military action.
If Tehran actually obtained a nuclear weapon, he said, Obama should act "not to
just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their
air force and deliver a decisive blow to the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards
[Corps]. In other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to fight
Emboldened by their impending control of the House of Representatives,
Republican leaders in the lower chamber are suggesting they will push the
administration to increase pressure on Iran by tightening existing sanctions
against companies, notably from Russia and China, that continue to do business
with Iran and laying the groundwork for stronger measures.
The administration has pushed back modestly against the growing Israeli and
Republican pressure. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who, among Obama's top
advisers, is reported to be most strongly opposed to military action, publicly
disagreed last week with Netanyahu's call to make the military threat more
"credible", insisting that Washington's current strategy of diplomatic
engagement and economic sanctions was "having an impact" on the Iranian
At a meeting of business executives in Washington on Tuesday, he said a
military attack would only unite Iran behind its hardline leadership and make
Tehran's nuclear program "deeper and more covert".
"The only long-term solution [to] avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons
capability is for the Iranians to decide it's not in their interest," Gates
said. "Everything else is a short-term solution."
In order to reach that decision, however, the new report said Iran's leaders
would need both positive incentives and greater clarity from Washington that it
is prepared to accept Iran's right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
to enrich uranium in exchange for a strict verification regime to ensure that
none of it is being diverted to a weapons program.
The report commended Obama for his initial efforts to reach out to Iran and his
subsequent success in mustering international support for a "much tougher set
of sanctions by the United Nations and by individual nations".
"However, for a host of reasons, not least of which is Tehran's unwelcoming
response to the administration's early engagement efforts, US diplomacy has
come to rest largely on punitive measures," it went on, adding that this
"emphasis on sanctions and related coercive steps is unlikely to elicit the
cooperation from Tehran that Washington seeks."
As a result, the study group concluded that the administration should
"rebalance" its approach by taking steps to induce that cooperation, including
communicating with its European allies a "comprehensive picture of what Tehran
has to gain from a mutually acceptable agreement on the nuclear issue" and "its
readiness to discuss a range of issues of potential mutual concern", such as
Afghanistan, drug-trafficking and energy policy.
While the "Iran Six" or "P5+1", comprising the five permanent members of the
United Nations Security Council plus Germany, is the appropriate venue to
discuss the nuclear issue, according to the report, it should also
conditionally support, rather than discourage or reject out of hand, diplomatic
initiatives by third countries - such as the one undertaken by Turkey and
Brazil last spring to revive an earlier proposal to reprocess Iran's
low-enriched uranium to fuel Tehran's research reactor that produces medical
isotopes - that could help bridge differences between the parties.
That proposal is likely to come up in long-anticipated talks that both sides
have agreed should take place on December 5. The parties have yet to agree,
however, on whether the meeting will take place in Vienna or Geneva, as
proposed by the European Union's foreign policy chief, or in Istanbul, as
proposed by Tehran.
Washington should also be prepared to pursue direct talks with Tehran
bilaterally, and US diplomats in third nations and in multi-national
organizations should interact with their Iranian counterparts, according to the
report, which was co-authored by Stimson's Barry Blechman and USIP's Daniel
Brumberg and Steven Heydemann.
An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would prove as harmful to US
interests as an attack undertaken by Washington, according to the report, which
called for increased consultations with the Jewish state to enlist its support
for "strategic engagement".
"In the context of this dialogue, the US should emphasize that Washington would
neither countenance nor support an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran," it
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.