A bipartisan, multilateral, muscular approach to Iran

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-08

Although conflict fuels political campaigns, election contests also illuminate the political consensus. It is as important to understand where candidates agree as to see where they disagree. In the second, foreign-policy-oriented debate between the two presidential nominees, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama demonstrated that they both agree that Iran threatens America and the world.

“And our challenge right now is the Iranians continue on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, and it’s a great threat,” one of the nominees said. : “It’s not just a threat — threat to the state of Israel. It’s a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East.” His rival proclaimed: “We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.” Only the most devoted partisans could identify which nominee made which statement – and only the most devoted partisans could find a basis anywhere in those statements for them to clash. Obama’s earlier stated willingness to negotiate without preconditions haunts him. But this question of preconditions is a skirmish about tactics not a war about fundamentals.

Tragically, this broad American consensus against Iran’s going nuclear is undermined by European ambivalence – and cravenness. The latest reminder came from Germany’s Ambassador to Iran who allowed his military attaché to attend an Iranian military parade in Teheran last month. The parade featured the usual calls to destroy Israel – and America.

Anticipating November 5, the day AFTER the election, Americans must start emphasizing these points of bipartisan agreement, to accelerate what will be a necessary healing process. Anticipating January 20, 2009, Inauguration Day, Americans must start thinking about the consensus the new president can count on – along with the strategic threats he will face.

The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. just released a noteworthy report offering a blueprint for the next president to follow in approaching Iran. (Full disclosure – I am a Visiting Scholar at the Center but did not work on the report). Available here the report is essential reading for the two candidates, their advisors, and every concerned Westerner. Deeming a nuclear weapons-capable Iran “strategically untenable,” the report says that, whoever wins the presidential election will have the “formidable task” of forging an effective bipartisan policy within the United States – along with a muscular multilateral policy abroad.

Balancing adeptly between scholarship and strategy, the report analyzes Iran’s past and present while presenting a thoughtful, integrated approach to nudge that country toward a more peaceful future. The new president will have to mix diplomatic, informational, and economic strategies, reinforced by possible military options. The task force, headed by former Senators Chuck Robb and Dan Coats, guided by the project director Dr. Michael Makovsky, advocates European cooperation, predetermined timetables for negotiation, and formidable, effective sanctions. Oil remains at the heart of the issue. America will have to consider blockading first Iran’s gasoline imports, then its oil exports, if negotiations fail. Calling for a “comprehensive strategy” and “vigorous execution” – both of which have been sorely lacking – these experts deem the military option “feasible” but a “last resort.” To be strong enough to avoid going military, and ready to launch if necessary, America has to build better alliances and pre-position military assets in the region immediately.

The scariest conclusion estimates that once Iran had an “adequate supply of low-enriched uranium” — which it might acquire within a year or possibly sooner — Iran could then enrich 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in “four weeks or less,” thus becoming “nuclear-weapons capable.” The most reassuring call is for “leverage building,” the process whereby America and her allies find just the right pressure points to avert this potential strategic disaster. “[I]t is not too late for sanctions and economic coercion to work,” the authors insist. “Despite near record oil prices, Iran’s economy remains weak. While the United States, its European allies, and the United Nations have imposed some sanctions on Teheran, each has a range of more biting economic tools at their disposal.”

Although the authors pull their political punches in true bipartisan spirit, the current administration’s failures haunt the report. The initial mishandling of the Iraq war emboldened Iran and undermined confidence in a military option, if it becomes necessary. Moreover, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that underestimated Iran’s commitment to going nuclear lessened pressure on this rogue regime. Still, charting a bipartisan and multidimensional approach for the next president is the best way to progress, without bogging down in partisan recriminations.

Israel’s position in this remains awkward. Iran frequently lambastes Israel as the easiest – and closest — Western target. If the United States and Europe negotiated with Iran seriously, substantively, Teheran would try to make Israel’s policies – and Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities – central issues that would strain an already fragile alliance. And the possibility that Israel will choose to strike Iran remains the “wild card” in this deck – and a compelling incentive for America to solve the problem.

Bipartisanship is easily hailed and just as easily ignored, especially during an increasingly ugly election campaign. This report reminds us that the most serious challenges any nation faces transcend party. All Americans suffer from the stock market woes just as they are equally threatened by a nuclear Iran. Without ignoring partisan differences, without reducing complex issues to apple-pie generalities, America’s leaders have to lead away from partisan recrimination and toward national action. These kinds of bipartisan reports on these kinds of transcendent, existential national issues are helpful reminders of all that unites Americans – and useful roadmaps toward the kinds of strategies needed during this precarious time.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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