On Iran, President Obama has dangled plenty of carrots. It’s time to pull out some sticks.
With a new round of talks coming this week in Baghdad between Iran and the group of nations known as the “P5+1” — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — over Tehran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to stress the possibility and desirability of a diplomatic solution, and to make clear that the military option is a last resort. As White House deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough said this month in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “We believe the policy we are pursuing is working. . . . We’re not involved in a negotiation effort for the sake of negotiations.”
But despite the optimism that came out of the negotiations last month in Istanbul, there is little reason to believe that Iran is serious about doing anything other than using the coming weeks to enrich more uranium and make progress toward a nuclear weapon. Success in the Baghdad talks would mean starting a process that would halt Iran’s program rather than just buy more time for Tehran. To do so, the United States must not only lay out the curbs on Iran’s nuclear program that Washington would be willing to reward, but also clearly outline what advances in Iran’s nuclear program it would be compelled to punish with military force. This is the only way to prove to the Iranians that, as Obama has said, the window is indeed closing.
Over the past six years, the international community has engaged in an intense diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program. All the while, the program has continued to progress, reaching disturbing milestones.
For example, in 2008, the international community was concerned about Iran’s mastery of enrichment at a formerly secret underground facility at Natanz and would have found the construction of another enrichment facility highly provocative. Nevertheless, in September 2009, the existence of such a facility was exposed; earlier this year, Iran began enriching uranium at the facility near Qom.
Similarly, in January 2010, Iran was enriching uranium to 3.5 percent — a low level that has plausible applications for a civilian nuclear energy program — at Natanz, but we consoled ourselves with the hope that Iran wouldn’t be reckless enough to enrich to higher levels under the watchful eyes of international inspectors. That is, until it did just that. Iran now possesses more than 100 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium, having done 90 percent of the work required to get to weapons-grade material.
At their news conference at the G-8 Summit in September 2009 revealing the site at Qom, Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressed anger that Iran had again been caught concealing an enrichment facility, which U.S. officials claimed was “the right size” to produce weapons-grade uranium and was designed to give Iran “an option of producing weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it.”