Unless effective measures are taken soon, Iran will have a nuclear bomb within a year according to worst-case assessments, or a few years under more optimistic ones. President-elect Barack Obama is publicly committed to a policy of engagement with Iran. The question is no longer whether to engage, but how to do so.
Iran has good strategic reasons for seeking a nuclear capability and it is questionable whether any combination of inducements, positive or negative, can elicit a change in its policies. We will only know, however, if a sincere and comprehensive attempt is made. Time is the biggest problem.
First, the timeline may now be such that there simply is no longer a sufficient interval for an engagement process. Assuming the new administration needs a few months to put its policies in place, the United States will only be ready for engagement in the late spring or early summer. If the worst-case scenarios are correct, this would leave only half a year for dialogue and in reality far less, for agreement would have to be reached well in advance. Conversely, this timeline would allow the US to begin dialogue only after Iran's elections in June, and thus hopefully avoid the need to deal with and possibly legitimize its radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Secondly, if Iran agrees to engagement at all, it will clearly seek to do so in the most protracted way possible. When it comes to playing for time through negotiations, Iran has few peers. It is thus essential that the US insist on a cessation of enrichment for the duration of talks as a condition for engagement. Otherwise engagement merely becomes a cover for completion of the nuclear program.
To be effective, engagement must be conducted from a position of strength and as part of an integrated, graduated and parallel series of steps. Engagement and sanctions should be viewed as mutually complementary, not exclusive, and while preparing to engage, the Obama administration should also lay the ground for increased pressure. To this end, it should make a final effort to get Russia and China on board for Security Council sanctions, but build a consensus with US allies on a broad extra-United Nations sanctions regime as a fallback. Some of the new sanctions should already be in force prior to engagement and some would be added, as required, as a means of further ratcheting up the pressure.
In the event that this combined "carrot and stick" approach does not elicit the desired change, the US should make it clear that a further major increase in pressure is imminent, beginning with a naval blockade, preferably multilateral but unilateral if necessary and possibly culminating in direct military action.
Bravado aside, Iran is highly vulnerable to international sanctions, certainly to a blockade, and the very threat might be sufficient to change its strategic calculus. Moreover, the possibility of further unilateral US action, following the Iraqi experience, is likely to prove sufficient to gain European support for severe sanctions and possibly even Chinese and Russian support in the Security Council. To this end, the US might also offer to address some of Moscow's major concerns, such as its opposition to NATO expansion and deployment of the anti-missile system in Europe, in exchange for support on Iran.
Although there are numerous issues on the US-Iran agenda, such as Iran's support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and its role in Iraq, the nuclear issue is of such overwhelming importance that it should be given clear precedence and, if necessary, treated as a stand-alone issue. In exchange for ending its military nuclear program, under strict safeguards, Iran should be offered a "grand bargain" by the US, including bilateral rapprochement and an end to the policy of regime change.
Iran may very well reject engagement and all inducements, as it has in the past. The exigencies of international politics today are such, however, that the US will only be able to pursue severe measures, including military action, if it demonstrates to US and world opinion that it has exhausted all other options.
Many in Israel will be alarmed by US engagement of Iran. Indeed, some will fear abandonment in the face of a potentially existential threat. Others clearly favor engagement, primarily as a way-station toward harder measures; but also in the hope, forlorn as it may be, that a deal can be worked out that will forestall the need for them. Assuming the US effectively addresses the time factor by insisting on a cessation of enrichment during engagement, Israel would have a major interest in its success and would likely support any agreement reached.
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and a Schusterman fellow
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