In order for the Obama administration to successfully engage Iran on the nuclear issue, Washington needs to enhance its ability to deter Tehran, according to the findings of a task force organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Time is short if diplomatic engagement is to have a chance of success," the report, titled Preventing a Cascade of Instability, warns ominously. "If the international community appears unable to stop Iran's nuclear program, Israel may decide to act unilaterally. Whatever Americans may think, Israeli leaders seemed convinced that at least for now, they have a military option."
International unity is essential for the engagement strategy to work, the report says. "To shore up regional stability, the United States, its Western allies, and its Middle Eastern friends need to act simultaneously on many fronts," the report asserts. "Vigorous action to reinforce America's friends and to check threats from Iran gives the international community leverage, and such leverage creates the best environment for successful engagement with Iran."
Members of the task force presented the report at a news conference on March 4. The key to bolstering deterrence capabilities is a tighter sanctions regime, task force members asserted. "The United States needs to promote much stiffer sanctions--both economic and financial, including those that place Iran's ability to export oil and import refined petroleum products at risk," said William Schneider, Jr., chairman of the Defense Science Board and a former Reagan administration official. "The global recession and the oil market meltdown offer some unique short-term opportunities to implement crippling sanctions on Iran's ability sustain its nuclear program."
Lending a sense of urgency to deterrence-enhancement efforts, Schneider alleged that Iran already possessed a sufficient quantity of uranium to potentially produce up to 50 atomic weapons. "The prolonged dithering of the international community has made it infeasible to prevent Iran from acquiring the industrial capability to enrich uranium," he said.
In addition to unity, the United States needs to improve its credibility in the region, added Nancy Soderberg, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. The problem at present, Soderberg indicated, is that many countries in the region no longer are intimidated by the United States. She noted that task force members on a December 2008 fact-finding tour found that Gulf Cooperation Council states believe that "we have lost the ability to scare" and "don't think we have the staying power in the region."
Soderberg went on to emphasize that the current Iranian regime is "a rational actor" which could be deterred given a changed "cost-benefit analysis."
Speakers at the March 4 event expressed particular concern about Russia's possible sale of sophisticated air defense technology to Tehran, particularly the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. They fear that if Moscow goes through with the sale, Israel might feel compelled to attack Iran's nuclear facilities before these improved defenses become operational. "It is the transfer of the S-300 that is likely to be the trigger of Israeli action in the region," Schneider said.
While the cost of failure is readily apparent, the engagement strategy's success could also foster problems. Any potential bargain that does not dismantle Iran's nuclear program could create non-proliferation headaches throughout the Middle East and beyond.
"If Iran 'gets away' at low costs with years of safeguards violations and defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, non-proliferation norms likely will further erode across the globe," the report states. "Other countries may consider taking the same path, especially if Iran's [nuclear] program gains legitimacy."
"Turkey and several Arab states are actively considering the use of nuclear power," the report continued. "If an agreement is reached legitimizing even limited enrichment on Iranian soil, other countries may well be interested in having the same capabilities, and it could be difficult diplomatically to dissuade them from this pursuit."
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.