Monday, June 11, 2012

Can Obama Solve Iran By “Going Big?”

by Jonathan S. Tobin

Since the P5+1 negotiations with Iran began much of the speculation about the diplomatic activity centered on the fact that it was clearly in the interests of both sides to keep talking for as long as possible rather than to allow an impasse to break talks off. The Iranians, the Obama administration and its diplomatic partners share a desire to keep diplomacy alive so as to make it impossible for Israel to launch an attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. But even if a deal is possible, the incremental arrangement offered by the West is worrisome for those who fear any such agreement will almost certainly be evaded and ultimately lead to a nuclear Iran.

The Iranians have balked at the West’s terms that would have allowed them to keep their nuclear program. However, as Laura Rozen reports on Al Monitor, there is another possibility in the works that may present an even greater danger of letting Iran off the hook. Rozen writes that the Obama administration is considering putting forward a grand proposal that would try for a permanent fix rather than a gradual process that might put in place an interim deal that could never be followed up. But it is far from clear whether “going big” with Iran will get the United States any closer to permanently removing the nuclear threat than the less ambitious P5+1 approach.

As Rozen presents the debate within the administration, the Defense Department is pushing for presenting a final proposal to Iran that would be accompanied by a military threat that would be the alternative if Tehran balked. The State Department wants to stick with the existing process. The argument for the “go big” approach is that even if Iran went along with the West’s current offer via the P5+1 group, such a deal would not be definitive and would probably never be followed up as the circumstances that brought the West together for the talks will not be replicated. Once there is an agreement in place the urgency that led to increased sanctions and diplomacy will be lost, and the West will probably go to sleep on the issue in the same manner that allowed the North Koreans to exploit the six-party talks on their program into a path to nuclear capability.

As Rozen’s sources note, the P5+1 deal offered the Iranians involves “reversible steps” that would be no bar to a determined effort to go nuclear. But missing from the story is any idea of how much tougher the “go big” solution would be. The notion of scrapping the current process is tempting because it would mean a direct U.S.-Iran negotiation rather than the dance being led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Yet if the “big” American proposal also lets the Iranians keep their nuclear program and grants them the right to go on refining uranium, albeit at low rates, then it may turn out to be just as reversible as the P5+1 diplomacy.

Even more to the point, going big is just as dependent on a belief that Iran would ever be willing under any circumstances to give up hope of attaining a nuclear weapon. If the pace of the current talks and the willingness of the Europeans to settle for an unsatisfactory deal frustrate U.S. officials, there is no guarantee they can do better themselves. It is just as easy to imagine the Iranians snookering the Obama administration in direct talks as it is to see them doing so to Ashton.

With Tehran stalling the International Atomic Energy Agency on inspections again and with the P5+1 talks giving every impression they are merely a delaying tactic, a change in diplomatic tactics is clearly necessary. A U.S. ultimatum to Iran is a good idea in principle. If the president embraces such a strategy once it is widely apparent (as it is already to anyone who’s really paying attention), it might provide the shock treatment the Iranians need. The problem is, they don’t believe the president is any more willing to credibly threaten a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities than the Europeans. And with divided counsels in Washington making it unlikely that the president will go big anytime soon on Iran, the prospect of a year of ineffective diplomacy that will only bring us closer to the day when the ayatollahs have a nuke is still the most likely outcome.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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