Diplomacy By Itself Won't Work with Iran

Resident Scholar
Michael Rubin

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced last summer that Iran possessed 6,000 centrifuges. But the problem is no longer just enrichment. Last week the Islamic Republic launched a satellite into orbit, demonstrating an intercontinental ballistic missile capacity.

A quiet but steady buildup in the Persian Gulf can do more than the most skilled diplomat when facing the Iranian clerics.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's confidants have repeatedly urged nuclear weapon development. Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, for example, declared in 2005: "We are able to produce atomic bombs, and we will do that...The United States is not more than a barking dog."

During his campaign, Obama promised to meet unconditionally with Iran's leader and conduct "tough diplomacy." These are mutually exclusive.

Be Suspicious

If he sits down with Ahmadinejad without precondition, he will not only have sent Tehran the message that it can win by defiance rather than diplomacy. He has also unilaterally set aside three U.N. Security Council Resolutions demanding Iran cease its enrichment.

Too often, new U.S. administrations assume that the fault for failed diplomacy lies more with their predecessors than with their adversary. To believe any Iranian leader is sincere is dangerous.

In a June 14, 2008, debate, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, government spokesman under Mohammad Khatami, criticized not Ahmadinejad's policy but his style, suggesting Khatami's strategy to lull the West better achieved Iran's nuclear aims.

"We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities," Ramezanzadeh explained.

Indeed, it was during Khatami's "dialogue of civilizations" that Tehran built its covert enrichment facility and, according to International Atomic Energy Agency reports, experimented with plutonium and uranium metal. Neither has a role in energy production, but have military applications.

And, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, it was under the reformists that Iran actively worked on nuclear warhead design.

Obama may seek out Iranian moderates, but he should understand that, on the nuclear issue, differences between Iranian factions are illusionary. The supreme leader tolerates no officeholder who does not support his line on national security.

On Feb. 3, the Kayhan newspaper--Khamenei's mouthpiece--drove home the point by calling Obama's attempts to reach out to moderates "futile."

All this does not mean diplomacy is useless. But to be successful, it must be carefully crafted. Cost matters. Here, the Iran-Iraq War provides a lesson.

Ayatollah Khomeini swore to pursue war with Iraq until victory, even after expelling Iraqi troops from Iranian territory in 1982. His counterinvasion bogged into stalemate and led to several hundred thousand Iranian deaths. Finally, in 1988, as costs became insurmountable, Khomeini changed course. He agreed to a cease-fire, saying it was like drinking "a chalice of poison."

Iran is willing to switch course, but only when the costs of its policy become too great to bear. This means fewer incentives.

Bailing out a failing Iranian economy makes no strategic sense unless Obama's goal is to preserve regime longevity and provide Iran a greater industrial and financial base upon which to develop nuclear weapons and support terrorist groups.

Neither is it wise to slowly ratchet up sanctions. No sanction yet imposed compares to the deprivation Iranians suffered in the 1980s. Instead, to achieve diplomatic leverage, Obama should impose maximal sanctions but offer to relieve them as Tehran complies with U.N. resolutions. Even without Moscow and Beijing's cooperation, Obama can leverage significant pressure.

Under Section 311 of the U.S. Patriot Act, the president can designate Iranian banks--including Iran's central bank--as guilty of deceptive financial practices. In effect, such action would remove Iranian banks from the international financial stage, for neither Russian nor Chinese banks could risk the associated liability.

Project Power

A military strategy role also exists. Obama, his adult life spent in sheltered circles, should realize that the military is not just about bombing, and that containment and deterrence are not simply rhetorical concepts but require military planning.

Nor should Obama repeat the mistakes of Jimmy Carter. Military deployments can provide diplomatic leverage.

During the 1970 Black September hostage crisis and after the 1975 Khmer Rouge seizure of the U.S. containership Mayaguez, Nixon and Ford, respectively, quietly deployed forces to augment leverage as the two presidents muted any public bluster.

Two days after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979, Carter's aides leaked that the president would not consider military force--information that the captors said led them to retrench.

A quiet but steady buildup in the Persian Gulf can do more than the most skilled diplomat when facing the Iranian clerics.

George W. Bush had the luxury of time and squandered it. Barack Obama will not be so lucky. For him to succeed, he must abandon his idealistic notion that diplomacy by itself is a panacea.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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