Why Obama Should Take a Chance on Iran

Military analysis.
Sept. 20 2013 6:11 PM

Take a Chance on Iran

President Obama would be crazy not to seize the opportunity that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has given him.

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We may be on the precipice of another possible breakthrough now. It’s worth testing, anyway. The doubters warn that the Iranians—perhaps Rouhani himself, perhaps the mullahs who are using him—are deceiving the world in order to buy time: The West gets strung along in endless negotiations, while in the meantime Iran continues to build a nuclear weapon.

Maybe the skeptics are right. But the bamboozling, if that’s what this gambit is, can go only so far. Obama isn’t about to mothball the aircraft carriers on patrol in the Mediterranean, nor stand down the numerous intelligence agencies monitoring Iran’s nuclear sites. In fact, the concern about “buying time” strengthens the case that Obama should put his own proposals on the table soon—in the next week or two, at the latest.

Even assuming Rouhani is the real thing, the question remains: What does he want? There should be no illusions here. Iran’s national interest—going back not merely decades but centuries—is to be a leading power in the region. In some ways, this conflicts with U.S. interests; in some ways, it can coexist with them. That isn’t an argument against probing Tehran’s goals.

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In his Sept. 19 Washington Post op-ed, Rouhani spelled out, or subtly hinted at, some of his goals in what he called a policy of “prudent engagement.” He made it very clear that any deal struck with the West would have to preserve Iran’s program of enriching uranium, at least to some extent. “A constructive approach to diplomacy,” he wrote, “doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights”—and under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran does have the right to enrich uranium, short of the level needed to build a nuclear bomb. He added, for good measure, “To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power … is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”

It’s been clear, to a lot of analysts, that even Western-leaning Iranians feel this way about their nuclear program. Any “grand bargain” with Iran would have to leave it with the right and the ability to enrich uranium up to, say, a level of 20 percent purity. Bomb-making requires about 80 percent enrichment, but it’s easier to get from 25 percent to 80 percent than it is to get from zero to 25. This can be verified with on-site inspection, which is allowed by the “Safeguards” annex to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Rouhani’s op-ed also makes much of the role of “identities”—national and otherwise—in fostering and calming conflict, and he states, with what might be more aspiration than description, “Gone is the age of blood feuds.” That is a clear reference to the growing Sunni-Shiite conflict that is coming to grip the entire region, especially in Syria.

Skeptics might note that Rouhani is threatening to put Obama in a box on the Syrian issue—a hint that U.S. airstrikes on Syria will make talks with Iran impossible. In one sense, he’s probably stating a fact: Rouhani may well be riding a very tight rope in Iranian politics. U.S. military intervention in Syria may lead his own domestic critics to conclude that talks with the Americans are futile.

However, Rouhani’s statement follows, serendipitously, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic overture in Syria. A quick settlement on Syria, at least when it comes to the issue of chemical weapons—which I think Putin has a very strong national interest to make happen—could spur, or at least remove an obstacle to, a smooth start to U.S. negotiations with Iran.

For years, many have noted that the problems in the Middle East are so intricately related that it would be hard to solve each on its own. Obama may have before him a rare convergence of events, factors, and forces where at least some of those problems can be dealt with simultaneously. He has a remarkable chance to pull the gold ring. Maybe it will prove to be the diplomatic equivalent of the Maltese Falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of. But maybe it could be the real deal. Either way, it’s worth grabbing at the chance.

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