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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.

Jonathan Power:The Man Closest to Medvedev

Talking to Igor Yurgens is probably as close to talking with Dmitri Medvedev as one can get without interviewing the Russian president himself. His influence is regarded by those who follow the inner workings of the Kremlin as immense. By disposition a liberal academic, committed to the rule of law, he runs his own think tank which gives him the research and intellectual firepower to influence his close friend. Yurgens had something to do with clearing the path for the president to give his first on-the-record interview to the remarkably brave and independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which had four star reporters, including Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down between 2001 and 2009. I recently interviewed Yurgens and we talked about Georgia, where the Russian army defeated Georgian forces that precipitated an unnecessary war last August by invading its neighbor, the pro-Russian mini-state of South Ossetia. I've long maintained that although Russia was acting within its rights in repulsing the unprovoked Georgian attack, it used a sledge hammer to kill a wasp. The Russian military used tactics that not only overwhelmed the Georgian army but created extensive destruction and civilian suffering. They seemed to be unnecessarily brutal. "Yes, maybe the Russian reaction was too heavy," replied Yurgens. "And there was no attempt at public relations before the event to explain what and why the Russians were doing. But then we always make the mistake of being too heavy handed. But if Medvedev hadn't given the order to intervene—and remember the military had worked themselves up—Medvedev would have been a lame duck president for the rest of his term." Within a couple of days of the invasions, Yurgens rushed to Washington for back-channel talks with the U.S. State Department. He told me that he "felt deceived by [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. The U.S. did know a week before the invasion, because the Russians made sure that the 800 American soldiers stationed in Georgia were not in the way in case we had to intervene. Also both American and Russian intelligence could see and follow the movement of the Georgian army. So the U.S. had the opportunity to intervene and tell the Georgians not to go ahead with their planned attack on South Ossetia." "But by then within the administration, opinion, including that of [President George W.] Bush and Rice, who a month before had publicly warned the Georgian leader [Mikhail] Saakashvili not to initiate a war, had shifted in [Vice President Dick] Cheney's direction. I got this impression from Bill Burns, who I've known for a long time, the number two in the State Department and a very informed ex-ambassador to Moscow." "Cheney, in effect, undermined Bush and Rice. He knew that right-wing academics, ex-American diplomats and others, who journeyed to Georgia in the preceding weeks, had dropped hints to Saakashvili that if it came to a showdown Bush and Rice would be compelled to support the Georgians, despite their earlier warnings. Saakashvili was emboldened to do what he had long planned. He thought he could get away with it. And he thought by poking us in the eye he would strengthen his weakening position at home, where he was becoming less democratic and more ruthless by the day." Back home in Moscow, Yurgens says that Medvedev wants to heal the breach with both the European Union and America. Medvedev "likes" the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, who has assumed power "with new ideas," and thinks that if "our institutions [change] then we won't depend on the subjective," Yurgens said.

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