The Obama administration, frustrated by Iran’s non-response to its diplomatic overtures, is considering policy shifts to ratchet up U.S. pressure on the Tehran regime — while still leaving the door open a crack for negotiations.
Officials here believe that keeping a diplomatic option on the table is necessary to build support among key European allies who are increasingly worried about the Iranian threat, but also committed to a broad, multilateral approach to the problem that includes carrots as well as sticks.
“Multiple clocks are ticking,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Upcoming deadlines include the late September meetings of the G20 and G8 countries, when European leaders want to see tangible progress on the Iran front, and the Obama
administration’s end-of-the-year target for diplomatic movement.
But well before those deadlines “the administration is realizing that its initial overtures have been rejected, and that they now have to start shifting to Plan B,” Harris said.
That shift may entail awkward decisions, Harris noted, including the possibility the Obama administration may have to trade some of its human rights concerns for better Russian and Chinese cooperation in dealing with Iran.
While talk of diplomatic action and new and tougher sanctions intensifies, Israel continues to signal its resolve that the world cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to the nuclear facility at Dimona was widely interpreted as less-than-subtle messages to the Iranians.
The view of the Israeli government is that “sanctions and diplomatic efforts must be given every chance to succeed,” said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Israel. “The U.S. has to conclude there is no other way to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. About a year from now or more we will enter the period when an Israeli attack is possible.”
The Iranian government’s savage response to protests about the June election and widespread international criticism of the crackdown have complicated the situation on both sides, said Shaul Bakhash, a leading Iran expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“It’s hard to draw conclusions because the situation in Iran is still in flux,” he said. “The secretary of state has said dialogue is still on the table.”
But the clock on U.S. diplomatic outreach is running out, he said, and diplomatic and political factors on both sides are diminishing the probability of success.
Any direct engagement by Washington “with an Iranian government that appears illegitimate, that’s engaged in an extraordinary crackdown on its own people, would be criticized here and internationally,” he said.
At the same time, Iran’s internal chaos, as well as growing international pressure, could harden the positions of Iran’s religious rulers.
“Given that Iran’s supreme leader has always said ‘don’t negotiate from a position of weakness,’ it is unlikely Iran would be willing to engage in negotiations at this time,” Bakhash said. “Its leaders would not want to appear weak at home by looking for accommodation abroad.”
Bakhash said he expects Iran’s leaders to stall by offering a proposal meant to buy time, and not directly address U.S. and international concerns.
The Obama administration is aware of those internal factors as it reevaluates its efforts at engagement, sources here say. Also spurring action is growing impatience by several European countries, most notably France, amid worries that an Iranian nuclear capability would give Tehran added leverage to spurn international pressure aimed at curbing its support for terrorism – something France sees as a grave domestic threat.
“We’re seeing two trends in Europe,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “Some are saying that yes, an Iranian nuclear capability would be a real threat, and we have to do more to prevent it from happening. But another response, which may be just as pervasive, is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may be inevitable, and now we have to focus on how to contain them. We hear more of that out there.”
Away from public scrutiny, U.S. and Israeli officials are developing contingency plans for just such a scenario – the kind of nuclear standoff that prevented Cold War tensions between the U.S. and USSR from exploding into global nuclear war.
But deterrence remains an unattractive, last-ditch policy option for a Jewish state that fears the potential for nuclear terrorism. The apocalyptic dreams of Iranian leaders could upset the kinds of pragmatic calculations that kept the lid on the nuclear genie in the 1950s and 1960s.
A public shift to a policy of deterrence could be a green light to Iran’s nervous neighbors to seek their own nuclear stockpiles, leaving already-faltering anti-proliferation efforts in shambles.
With diplomacy apparently stalemated, Congress will accelerate work on at least four new sanctions measures in September, including the Iran Petroleum Sanctions Act, sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).
Iran expert Bakhash said ratcheted-up sanctions, especially in the critical petroleum sector, may have an impact – but they are unlikely to turn Iran’s leaders around on the key question of nuclear development.
“Banking sanctions are clearly making transactions more difficult for the Iranian government and for businesses,” he said. “On the other hand, this is not a government that has been sensitive to damage done to its economy or to its private sector. And it remains very unlikely the Russians and Chinese would go along [with Washington], for their own reasons.”
The AJC’s Harris said that reality could force the Obama administration, now refocusing on sanctions instead of negotiations, to face politically and morally awkward choices.
“You get (Russia and China) to cooperate not because you assert it’s the right thing to do, but by offering something that’s even more important to them than their relations with Iran,” he said. That could include concessions to Russia on NATO expansion – and an easing of human rights pressures on both countries.
“These are extremely difficult decisions to make, when realpolitik factors come up against moral imperatives,” Harris said.