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Obama Still Has Options on Iran

The Washington Post’s write-up of the upcoming report from the UN’s nuclear watchdog confirms the key elements of Iran’s nuclear program: they have “mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles,” and the Iranians intend to use this capability for “weapons-related” purposes.

None of this is particularly shocking, nor is the Iranian government’s yawn in response: “Let them publish and see what happens.” As Jonathan noted yesterday, sabotage (either through the Stuxnet worm or assassinations of nuclear scientists) was never considered a silver bullet to stop the Iranian program; sanctions that would do the trick will be blocked by Russia and China; and sanctions targeting the Central Bank of Iran would be helpful but not conclusive. So what should President Obama do? He has three options.

First, he should take action that could collapse the Central Bank of Iran anyway. It’s true this is not going to stop the program, but it would help and it would send a message. If the U.S. cannot effectively sanction the Iranian Central Bank, it will have no credibility to enact tougher sanctions. The Republican currently holding Obama’s old Senate seat, Mark Kirk, has been pushing the president on this and called a press conference today to continue doing so. Kirk and Charles Schumer have been rallying their respective caucuses behind the effort, and a letter calling for such action received the signatures of 92 senators in August. The purpose of Kirk’s press conference today is to outline an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill under consideration this week. “We have to use the strongest non-military means available to reduce the coming danger to America, Saudi Arabia, and Israel,” Kirk said.

Second, the U.S. should stop pretending it has no leverage over Russia. The last hurdle to Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization–Georgian opposition–has been cleared. But the U.S. can still block it. If Obama wants an indisputable success with regard to the “reset,” getting Russia to stand down and allow real sanctions on Iran would be an especially good place to start. Of course it benefits the American economy to have Russia in the WTO, but so does doing business with Iran. So far, the U.S. has wrung zero concessions from Vladimir Putin over Russia’s long-awaited accession to the WTO, and in fact has ignored its illegal behavior toward Georgia in order to welcome Russia to the club. Iranian sanctions wouldn’t be too much to ask from an authoritarian country looking to join a global organization dedicated to ethical trade practices.

Third, Obama should keep the pressure up on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad any way he can. He should start by figuring out what can be done to stop the American and European companies currently outfitting the Syrian regime with surveillance equipment to help their brutal crackdown on Syrian opposition and civilian protesters, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported a few days ago. Every Iranian ally in the Middle East relies on Syria as well in some form or another, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. And those allies are key to Iran’s deterrent capability, through its terrorist proxies with thousands of missiles aimed at Israel in case of attack. Any weakening of that nexus will weaken Iran.

Obama cannot stop the Iranian nuclear program with any of these measures, but they will all do more than simply describing the news as “unhelpful” and changing the subject, as this administration likes to do.



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