Over the course of the last year, President Obama has escalated his rhetoric against Iran. His repudiation of a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran and his repeated promise never to allow the Islamist regime to gain such a weapon has left him little room to maneuver. Tehran continues to stonewall the diplomatic process initiated by the United States and its partners in the P5+1 process. Just as ominously, the ayatollahs have doubled down on their efforts to strengthen their nuclear program. The number of centrifuges spinning away to enrich uranium to bomb-level grade in their underground mountain bunker facility has increased while international inspectors continue to be kept away from sites where military applications of nuclear technology can be found.
But with the clock ticking down toward the moment when the Iranians will have enough fuel to make bombs, much of the foreign policy establishment in the United States is still trying to influence the president to back away from his pledge. The Iran Project has assembled a formidable array of former diplomats and political figures to urge Obama to not just stop talking about force but also to move away from the economic sanctions he has belatedly implemented to pressure Tehran. The group, which has strong ties to the administration, has issued a new report, “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy,” that is aimed at providing a rationale for Obama to embark on yet another attempt at engagement with Iran that would effectively assure the ayatollahs that they have nothing to fear from the West.
The timing of the release of this report couldn’t be any worse. It comes only weeks after the president reaffirmed his commitment to stopping Iran during his visit to Israel and in the direct aftermath of the latest diplomatic fiasco in which the P5+1 group’s attempt to entice Tehran to give up its nukes with concessions flopped. But given the influence that signatories such as Thomas Pickering, Zbigniew Brezezinski, Daniel Kurtzer, Lee Hamilton, and Richard Lugar have with the Obama foreign policy team—especially former Iran Project board member and current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel—it’s an open question as to whether this document will provide a template for a new round of appeasement of Iran.
While the report is couched in language that agrees with the objective of preventing Iran from going nuclear, its recommendations are primarily aimed at convincing Americans to embrace Tehran’s goals rather than the other way around. Reading it one quickly realizes that the author’s main fear is not so much the likelihood that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons as it is the possibility that the United States may be obligated to use force to prevent that from happening.
While the use of force, which a previous Iran Project paper signed by Hagel sought to prevent, would entail grave risks, it is increasingly clear that the alternative is not a diplomatic solution by which Iran renounces its nuclear ambition but the containment policy that Obama has specifically rejected.
But rather than endorse a strengthening of the sanctions regime which has at least inflicted some pain on the Iranian economy and given the ayatollahs at least a theoretical incentive to negotiate, the Iran Project seeks to abandon this track. Their focus is solely on negotiations.
The rationale for this puzzling strategy is an assumption that sanctions only alienate and isolate the Iranians and will never persuade them to give up positions they believe are essential to their national interests. They are probably right when they argue that the combination of diplomacy and sanctions will never convince Iran to surrender its nukes. But they fail to explain how or why Tehran would do so without the stick of sanctions or force hanging over their heads.
The report’s main interest is really not about the nuclear threat but in promoting some sort of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. They acknowledge the wide gap between the two governments in terms of their positions on terrorism, Middle East peace and human rights. But they think it is possible for there to be mutually satisfying relations if only the Americans put to rest any fears in Tehran that the United States is interested in regime change in Iran.
It should be admitted that the chances that any putative American efforts to topple the tyrannical Islamist regime short of invasion (which not even those who advocate bombing their nuclear facilities advocate) would not meet with success given the ruthless nature of the Iranian government. But what these foreign policy “realists” are advocating is a U.S. endorsement of one of the most repressive and anti-Semitic governments in the world. This would be another betrayal of American values as well as of a suffering Iranian people, who waited in vain for the Obama administration to speak out against the 2009 crackdown against dissent.
While there are issues on which Iran and the United States might find common ground, such as the drug trade and Afghanistan, the nature of the Iranian regime is such that it is incapable of regarding America as anything but its enemy. So long as the Islamists are in charge hope of reconciliation or a restoration of the warm ties that existed prior to the 1979 revolution are absurd.
While the Obama administration was slow to enact sanctions and is still giving time to a diplomatic process that has only given the Iranians the opportunity to stall the West, it is nevertheless committed to doing the right thing on this issue. But we know the Iran Project’s siren call of appeasement resonates with many working inside Obama’s inner circle. The message between the lines in this report is one that will pave the way for a containment policy that would reward Iran for its flouting of the diplomatic process. If there is even the slightest hope left that diplomacy and sanctions will work, it is vital that the president reject this report and signal to the Iranians that they will wait in vain for the U.S. to start another bout of appeasement.