Iran: Avoiding War and Getting to Mutual Accommodation and Security

“As President Obama has said, the entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Because of our work to rally the international community, Iran is under greater pressure now than ever before. That pressure will continue and increase so long as Iran fails to meet its international obligations. We all prefer a diplomatic resolution and Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision. The choice is ultimately Iran’s. Our own choice is clear: We will use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

– Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, at a press conference in Israel

The latest news on Iran is about the mutual buildup of military forces in the Gulf by both the Iranians and the U.S. alongside the frustrating protracted efforts to get to some agreement about the nuclear uranium enrichment and weapons stalemate that threatens the whole region and perhaps moves closer and closer to a point of conflict.

Getting to a mutual accommodation that both sides can accept, live with over the long term, and that provides security for both sides is the key.  This can only be done through negotiations with a solution that requires each side to make compromises that do not threaten real fundamental interests and security.  

 Face saving and national “dignity” are also considerations on all sides. The problem is that it is clear that Iran, despite prostrations, has indeed made efforts toward nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery.  Their nuclear uranium enrichment efforts along with other clandestine programs indicate they are building a weapons grade level enrichment program that is not legitimate for peaceful purposes.  Let’s be clear, this is a path of disaster.

They have been offered a deal in which their nuclear uranium materials would be fabricated abroad and guaranteed with provided reactor fuel for their peaceful reactors and they in turn would submit to full IAEA inspections and surveillance against diversion and military nuclear activities.

The role of current sanctions has been to force Iran to the negotiating table with an incentive to find an accommodation to restart their now faulting economy.   Solutions are likely to involve trade-offs and wise carrots and sticks. The agreed outcome likely requires Iran to gain enough at that table so that it can face its citizens with some rewards while the Western powers, the involved Arab nations, and other interested parties can insure that Iran will not be a nuclear weapons power. 

The problem has been complicated by calls for an “early war” with Iran by some sectors in Israel, and by the far right “super hawks” in America, who got us in the senseless Iraq war. The fact remains that Iran is still not at a stage to likely break out as a nuclear-weapons state.  Most experts believe that we have space to allow the sanctions to work fully and to continue efforts to engage the Iranian leadership through negotiations.  There are reports from British intelligence, however, that Iran might have nuclear weapons capabilities by 2014. It is likely with our intelligence capabilities we would “see’ that well in advance. It is possible this issue will again surface in the presidential debates this fall with cries for an attack -inherently a war from Mitt Romney and other right wing hawks.

Forces in Congress are pushing for much harsher sanctions and while that case can be made, the pending legislation is more a blunt instrument than a fine scalpel that provides the administration and our allies some flexibility. It seems that the Republicans and some Democrats, with politics more on their mind than strategic interests or good diplomacy, want to box Obama into a small corner leaving him without the ability to make judgment calls and timing. This is a bad idea for a diplomacy effort. 

There are also calls for more threats of force.  The statement that all options are on the table is quite enough and our deployment of forces in the Persian Gulf makes that case but this also has high risks. It is better to talk softly and carry a partly hidden stick. Remember we want an agreement, not a war – which would create total disaster for all. 

While showing the flag in the Gulf may act as a useful warning and deterrence strategy against the threat of closing the straits, it has been reciprocated by the Iranian navy and a recent announcement by Iran of Air force war games in the Gulf. It is not a good idea for either of these forces to get too close or mistakes might be made that could escalate in unpredictable ways.  

The next diplomatic steps need a combination of effective but judicious sanctions supported by our allies as well as a number of quiet and political initiatives at several levels and by multiple actors in support of a concrete solution.

There are a number of ideas that can get us towards some set of mutual solutions if Iran does not really want nuclear weapons. But if that is its only aim, at the cost of its own destruction, then we are in a zero sum game with consequences that no rational actor would want.

I think frankly that the Iran regime does not want a war that it would clearly lose, but it fears not appearing strong and has fears for its security and a strong desire to remain a power in the region. The latter can be accommodated but Iranian nuclear weapons will only bring instability for all. 

The offer to Iran in negotiations could be part of a broad “regional accommodation” in which many elements could work to solidify Iran’s legitimate place in the region and at the same time enhance its economic role in world trade – an urgent need for inward investment.  Such an accommodation would include creating a broad understanding by all key actors of the need for stability, security, and enhanced cooperation. 

This would mean the intertwined issues of relations between Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, the Gulf States, the Middle East, oil, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, economic cooperation, and human rights would be addressed and a predictable and mutually advantageous settlement would be reached; a tall but better order for all than confrontation and increased insecurity and rising regional conflict with a nuclear component. 

We welcome your comments!

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