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Chuck Freilich: Engage Iran with a Big Stick

I am all for engaging with Iran. In principle, negotiations are always preferable and it is certainly worth a try. But, there is a big problem. Actually, a few. Last week, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indirectly put his finger on the big problem, when he stated that the timeline to a first Iranian nuclear bomb (a “calamitous” outcome, in his words) is now thought to be just one to three years. If the shorter assessment proves correct, there simply may not be enough time for effective engagement; if the longer, then we may still have time, but the question remains over Iran’s basic willingness to make a deal. President Barack Obama recently said that the end of 2009 is his target date for assessing whether Iran is serious about making progress. (He left himself wiggle room, however, as this is only the target date for assessing the prospects for progress—not for a deal). All of the candidates in Iran’s forthcoming presidential elections have expressed explicit support for continuing the nuclear program, although there has been some talk of possible change in the gratuitously confrontational strategy Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has adopted. As the elections are in June, it is unlikely that engagement with the United States could begin before July or August if Ahmadinejad wins. If one of his rivals wins, it may take a few more months to get a new policy into place. There is no doubt that the Iranians—masters of the “draw-out-the-negotiations-as-long-as-humanly-possible-and-even-longer” school of diplomacy—will seek to use engagement and negotiations as a means of gaining as much time as possible to complete the nuclear development process, even if there is a basic willingness to cut a deal. The stalling will make President Obama’s end-of-year timetable problematic, at best, which is critical if, as Mullen warned, we might only have until next spring before Iran has the bomb. Iran is most likely to respond only to a combined “stick-and-carrot” approach. The Obama administration, however, has opted for a middle-of-the-road approach, with sticks in the form of heavy sanctions as a consequence only in the event that the talks fail. This would be appropriate if we had more time, but we do not. Effective engagement must thus be accompanied, from the beginning, by a clear stick—a comprehensive package of sanctions to which U.S. allies will have signed on to from the start as part of a united Western front intended to leverage Washington’s willingness to engage. The upcoming few months could also be used in a further attempt to reach a deal with the Russians and Chinese for Security Council sanctions, but this is, in all likelihood, a forlorn hope. If we are to truly gain Iran’s attention and make it clear that this is a last ditch effort, that the international community will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, the sanctions must include a ban on exports of refined petroleum products. (Iran imports 40 percent of its total domestic consumption.) Nothing less will be sufficient to do the trick. But even this may prove insufficient. Iran has compelling national security reasons of its own for wanting  nuclear capability and is clearly willing to pay a heavy price to achieve it. They may reason that a few months of pain will be worth having nuclear weapons and that the world will rapidly grow tired of the confrontation. Much as is the case with North Korea, Iran could stonewall and then force the world to deal with it on its own terms as a nuclear power. In order to elicit a change in Iran’s calculus and achieve a verifiable end to the military nuclear program, Washington should be willing to put everything on the table and give Tehran any reasonable assurances it needs, including a guarantee to stop seeking regime change. This, however, is likely to prove illusory, which means that within a year, a few at most, we will face three unsavory choices: living with a nuclear Iran through containment and deterrence (a policy which may prove acceptable for the United States, but certainly far less so for Israel); a naval blockade; or direct military action. The various doomsday assessments of the Iranian response to a U.S. military attack are greatly overblown. Iran is extremist, not irrational. It will not wish to find itself in a war with the United States, and although it will have to respond militarily in some way to save face, it will most likely be highly circumscribed in nature. The response against Israel, however, regardless of whether it was an America or Israeli attack would probably be severe. Tehran would likely use all of the military assets at its disposal, including those of Hezbollah and Hamas, firing ballistic missiles from Iran and tens of thousands of rockets from Lebanon and Gaza. I believe this is a price worth paying from Israel’s perspective, if an attack could delay Tehran’s nuclear program by at least three to five years. It is preferable that this be done sooner rather than later, while Iran's stock of Shihab missiles is still limited. In a few years, Iran will have a much larger arsenal that includes longer-range weapons. Time gained from military action would then be used to push for diplomatic and other measures in order to further extend the time gained. An interim step short of direct military action, but one which would probably prove to be no less effective—and maybe even more so, in the long run—is a U.S.-led naval blockade. A blockade would bring Iran's totally oil-dependent economy to its knees, and, though an act of war, its response would again probably be minimal. Iran talks a good game and threatens retaliation, but its options are limited and its leaders truly understand what many in the West no longer do—what the true balance of power is, and who wields the biggest stick. Chuck Freilich was a deputy national security advisor in Israel, and is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is completing a book on national security decision-making processes in Israel.

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