Leslie H. Gelb on How President Obama Should Handle Iran
The United States, Israel, and Europe are inching closer to war with Iran because of what they’re doing and what they’re not doing. What they are doing is squeezing Iran with unprecedented economic sanctions (which is good); but Western leaders know full well the penalties won’t cause Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. What the West is doing is drawing “red lines” that are backing its leaders into untenable and dangerous corners, as well as cornering Iran. What they are not doing is leveraging these economic and military pressures with a negotiating proposal that can curtail Iran’s nuclear-bomb-making capabilities without war.
As Western leaders back Iran into a corner and as they are locking themselves into a war policy they haven’t seriously contemplated and don’t really want, now is the time to offer a deal. The peace package is simple: Iran keeps its uranium facilities but with capabilities to enrich reduced to levels fit only for civilian use. Tehran also agrees to the tightest international verification procedures. The West lifts sanctions gradually as Iran complies with both reconfiguring its nuclear plants and accepts the necessary verification. For sure, President Obama has tried similar proposals before. This time, however, Iran may find that the biting economic pressures make the deal more palatable. For sure, neither I nor anyone else knows whether Iran will accept this time. But I do know this: if we don’t at least try the negotiating track, a war of untold uncertainties and dangers can come upon us.
To see why economic sanctions alone won’t lead to Tehran’s capitulation, try to look at the situation through Iranian eyes. Here’s what they see: Pakistan, a country that has already given away nuclear secrets to terrorist and renegade states and which itself could be heading toward a Muslim extremist takeover, got the bomb. We did nothing about it. North Korea, one of the nuttiest states around, which has also given nuclear knowledge to Syria and Pakistan (among others), also acquired nukes. We did nothing about that either. Washington accepted India’s nukes and even made special verification arrangements with New Delhi that expressly contradicted the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And of course, Israel has long had a substantial nuclear strike capability, and Washington secretly applauds that, as do I, openly.
Washington and Israel say Iran is a special case. One reason is that Tehran is supposedly more likely to use its nukes. But why? North Korea and Pakistan are even less predictable than Iran. Another reason is that Iran’s nukes will cause its neighbors, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to go nuclear. But just as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have restrained themselves regarding North Korea, so too can Iran’s Arab neighbors. What should calm the waters in the Mideast, as in Asia, is confidence in the U.S. deterrent power. If Pyongyang so much as twitched a nuclear finger, its existence would be a thing of the past. Iran would face the same fate.
As Iranians see it, the real reason they are made the only exception to America’s no-nukes wall is this: Israel. The Netanyahu regime is convinced that Iran actually will go to nuclear war against the Jewish state, no matter Tehran’s certainty that it will be utterly destroyed in return. Tel Aviv thinks the mullahs are Hitlers bent on the destruction of Jews, no matter the cost to themselves. Besides, they reckon that Israel’s options to use force against its neighbors will be dangerously limited if Tehran possessed nukes and made nuclear threats.
These Israeli judgments have to be taken seriously. At the same time, it needs be said that many if not most Israeli intelligence officers and key senior military officers have taken nearly the opposite point of view. Of course, they worry about such an Iranian threat. But they believe that Israel’s powerful nuclear deterrent will work, that the Iranian leaders are not crazy Hitlers. And they further argue that war would solve nothing and could have grave consequences. Nothing would be solved, they say, because Iran’s nuclear march would be set back only by a year or two, then go further underground and be even harder to destroy. And they contend that the adverse reaction to an Israeli attack around the world would be devastating politically, to say nothing of the prospect of a wave of anti-Israeli terrorism.
Faced with these circumstances and prospects, Washington has decided to toughen its stance rhetorically. The good old formulation that “all options are on the table” is no longer sufficient. Now, with full White House support, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has gone much further in reducing ambiguity about what the U.S. would do if Iran proceeded with its nuclear development. He didn’t define that “red line,” but the inevitable neoconservatives are doing it for him and for President Obama. They’re maintaining that almost any further moves by Tehran along the nuclear path should trigger U.S. strikes against all possible nuclear targets. Some U.S. military leaders seem to think red lines make sense; most military leaders decidedly do not.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors arrived in Iran on Sunday for a three-day inspection tour. Most recently, that agency, charged with checking what’s going on within suspect nations, issued a report saying it could not attest that Iran’s program was peaceful, and that it could be headed toward nuclear weapons. The agency didn’t say so in its report at that time, but most analysts now predict that Iran could have usable nukes within one to two years. Such precision belies their intelligence capabilities as well as America’s. But there we are.
And here we Americans are in a presidential election year. At these times, the straps of restraint on tough talk and tough action are almost always loosened. That’s especially true when Democrats hold the White House—Democrats who are quadrennially scared stupid by the prospect of Republicans accusing them of being lily-livered liberals and selling out the nation’s security. I’d like to see President Obama show the courage of offering a solid peace proposal instead of just drawing chest-thumping red lines. Meantime, he doesn’t have to withdraw any sanctions or any “red lines.” Just cut the usual diplomatic and political baloney, and try. With so much pressure now being applied on Iran, it might work. In the midst of a barrage of economic and military pressures, it is not a sign of weakness or lack of resolve to offer peace. It is classic negotiating from strength.