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How to Press the Advantage with Iran

By Flynt & Hillary Mann Leverett, New York Times - September 29, 2009

TEHRAN’S disclosure that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qum has derailed the Obama administration’s already faltering efforts to engage with Iran. The United States will now cling even more tightly to the futile hope that international pressure and domestic instability will induce major changes in Iranian decision-making.

Indeed, the meeting on Thursday in Geneva of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany with Iran (the “five plus one” talks) will not be an occasion for strategic discussion but for delivering an ultimatum: Iran will have to agree to pre-emptive limitations on its nuclear program or face what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “crippling” sanctions.

However, based on conversations we’ve had in recent days with senior Iranian officials — including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — we believe it is highly unlikely Iran will accept this ultimatum. It is also unlikely that Russia and China will support sanctions that come anywhere near crippling Iran. After this all-too-predictable scenario has played out, the Obama administration will be left, as a consequence of its own weakness and vacillation, with extremely poor choices for dealing with Iran.

Because President Obama assembled a national security team that, for the most part, did not share his early vision for American-Iranian rapprochement, his administration never built a strong public case for engagement. The prospect of engagement is still treated largely as a channel for “rewarding” positive Iranian actions and “punishing” problematic behavior — precisely what Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate, criticized so eloquently about President George W. Bush’s approach.

At the United Nations General Assembly last week, President Obama used language reminiscent of Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil” to identify Iran and North Korea as the main threats to international peace and vowed to hold them “accountable.” In Geneva, we can expect the United States to demand that Iran not only accept “concrete” limitations on further nuclear development but also demonstrate the peaceful nature of its nuclear program to avoid severe sanctions.

This approach prompted Mr. Ahmadinejad, during a meeting last week, to declare that Iran does not believe Americans are “serious” about strategic cooperation. He argued that, when Iran had previously agreed to limit its nuclear development — as when it suspended uranium enrichment from 2003 to 2005 — Western powers offered nothing in return, and instead sought to “restrict our rights even further.”

This was more than a diplomatic failure by the West — it was also a serious blow to the credibility of reform-minded politicians in Iran. Is it a surprise, then, that no candidate in Iran’s recent presidential election supported renewed unilateral restrictions on its nuclear program? Mr. Ahmadinejad has now reiterated that it should be possible to cooperate with Washington to resolve the nuclear issue, but only in the context of a broader strategic understanding — something the Obama administration has not accepted.

Absent some agreement with Washington on its long-term goals, Iran’s national security strategy will continue emphasizing “asymmetric” defense against perceived American encirclement. Over several years, officials in both the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami and the conservative Ahmadinejad administration have told us that this defensive strategy includes cultivating ties to political forces and militias in other states in the region, developing Iran’s missile capacity (as underscored by this weekend’s tests of medium-range missiles), and pushing the limits of Tehran’s nonproliferation obligations to the point where it would be seen as having the ability and ingredients to make fission weapons. It seems hardly a coincidence that Iran is accused of having started the Qum lab in 2005 — precisely when Tehran had concluded that suspending enrichment had failed to diminish American hostility.

Flynt Leverett is the director of the Iran project at the New America Foundation and a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. Hillary Mann Leverett is the president of a political risk consultancy. Both are former National Security Council staff members.

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