The P5+1 (U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. and Germany) negotiations with Iranian officials scheduled to reconvene on June 18-19 in Moscow likely represent the last opportunity to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state by non-military means.
Previous negotiations with Iran, including those held in Istanbul and Baghdad earlier this year, have produced little more than vacuous joint statements declaring the meetings “constructive and useful.” Stillborn agreements, such as the nuclear swap brokered by Turkey and Brazil in May 2010, have raised strong suspicions that Iran is simply stalling for time in pursuit of its nuclear ambitions.
Securing and enforcing agreements with rogue states is no small task. Just take a look at North Korea. It has broken multiple agreements, some dating back to 1994, not to develop nuclear weapons or test long-range missiles.
Yet as dangerous as North Korea is, Iran presents an even bigger threat. Whereas resource-poor North Korea remains fixated on South Korea, oil-rich Tehran harbors hegemonic aspirations throughout the Middle East.
The failure to reverse Iran’s relentless drive toward a nuclear weapon will result in a strategic disaster for the U.S. and its allies.
First, it will shatter American credibility and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have all insisted that the U.S. would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. To acquiesce now would cast aside almost two decades of bipartisan diplomacy and render future American assurances to our friends and partners in the region meaningless.
Second, a nuclear-armed Iran would spark a nuclear arms race in the region. Saudi Arabia has already indicated that it would likely respond to the Iranian nuclear threat by obtaining its own nuclear weapons. Other states, Egypt and Turkey included, may well decide to follow suit.
Third, a nuclear-armed Iran would almost certainly be emboldened to further its revolutionary aims. To understand how dangerous this would be, just consider Iran’s track record acting directly or through surrogates: kidnapping Americans during the 1980s, bombing the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, providing advanced IEDs to Iraqi insurgent groups, aiding Taliban factions in Afghanistan, and, most recently, attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil.
Tehran’s lethal aims extend well beyond the Great Satan. In addition to backing Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel and threatening the Jewish people with extinction, Iran has provided political and financial support to Shiite factions throughout the gulf seeking to overthrow governments friendly to the U.S.
Iran’s relentless development of long-range missiles even prompted NATO in 2010 to adopt missile defense as a formal goal.
To imagine that such a regime would somehow become more moderate after developing nuclear weapons is pure fantasy. Iran’s history of aggressive misbehavior also is important to recall in the context of negotiating any agreement, a potentially lengthy process that Iran is exploiting to further its nuclear aspirations and to shield itself from a possible Israeli military strike.
To have any chance of success, a P5+1 brokered agreement must include clearly defined red lines, deadlines and severe penalties for non-compliance.
It remains unclear whether President Obama will be able to strengthen sanctions to the point where they might prove decisive in convincing Iran to relinquish its nuclear aspirations. Though you would never guess it from reading White House press releases, the multiple rounds of U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions implemented thus far are pockmarked with loopholes and exemptions. The fact is that neither “reset buttons” nor diplomatic overtures have assuaged Russia or China’s refusal to support sanctions with enough bite to actually threaten the stability of the Iranian regime.
Will Obama actually impose meaningful penalties on China if it fails to reduce imports of Iranian oil? Will he seek to close loopholes that currently exempt several important Russian arms merchants from doing business with Iran? Until the U.S. makes clear to both states that their intransigence will come at a heavy cost, their strategic calculus will not change, and existing sanctions are unlikely to convince Iran to reverse course and accept an ironclad agreement.
In a similar fashion, Obama’s unwillingness to credibly threaten military action works to offset diplomatic and economic pressures on Iran. The Obama administration’s occasional, perfunctory statements that “all options are on the table” ring hollow, since its body language suggests otherwise.
Indeed, the intensity with which senior U.S. officials have hectored Israel to delay a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities provides a window into just how reluctant the Obama administration is to threaten military action of its own. But with his emphasis on sheathing the saber, Obama is undermining his own diplomatic leverage and actually making armed conflict with Iran more likely.
The endgame draws near.
By James Anderson is a professor at the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies. Frank Marlo is an assistant professor at U.S. Marine Corps University. The views expressed here are their own.