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.”

But when it came to a response, the United Nations did not approve sanctions against Tehran until nine months later.

Even beyond Qom, international sanctions have been disconnected from Iranian actions, driven instead by the politics and the timelines of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union or the U.S. Congress. This obviously limits their deterrent value.

Iran has repeatedly crossed what should have been bright red lines for the international community. But instead of taking tough measures to stop them, the world simply watched, responding with bluster not backed up by serious repercussions. If the regime crosses another red line in the future, such as enriching beyond 20 percent, will we stand by once again?

The Obama administration has articulated only one bright red line: building nuclear weapons. But if we wait until Iran turns the final screws on a nuclear device, we probably will be too late. The administration’s pledge to use force if necessary also rings hollow if Iran is allowed to make significant progress in all the other areas required for a weapon.

The United States can strike Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from making weapons-grade uranium, but once it has the fissile material, the game is over. At that point, our options would be reduced to either beginning an operation to topple the regime — which would most likely require ground forces — or simply praying that Tehran doesn’t weaponize. Neither is attractive.

A more reasonable set of red lines would include advances that would greatly shrink Iran’s dash time to a bomb, such as building additional covert facilities, installing advanced centrifuges at Natanz or Qom, maintaining larger stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, enriching beyond 20 percent, kicking out international inspectors, or conducting certain weaponization-related research.

Clearly articulating the red lines that Iran cannot cross would place the last clear chance to avoid a confrontation squarely on its shoulders. If Iran is willing to put hard ceilings on all aspects of its nuclear program, it can avoid a near-term conflict, but if it pushes forward, it will invite a strike that will be much more painful for itself than it is for the United States. After all, Washington has a spectrum of viable military options, including a limited strike against a few key nuclear facilities, as well as a broader bombing campaign that could destroy the Iranian military and destabilize the regime. The response could be commensurate to the seriousness of Iran’s transgressions.

This proactive approach should help calm nerves in the region about Obama’s mettle, and could forestall Israel from taking matters into its own hands.

Some will argue that articulating red lines would legitimize Iran’s activities thus far. But the confidence-building measures the international community has previously put on the table — such as fuel-swap proposals — have already had that effect, even if unintentionally. Red lines could be outlined in a way that does not undermine the Security Council’s demands that Iran halt all enrichment activities and answer the International Atomic Energy Agency’s questions about possible military dimensions of its program. The benefits of being clear about what we cannot accept outweigh the possible costs.

No one wants military action. But drawing red lines linked to the guaranteed use of force by Washington and its allies could be the best way to avoid conflict. Iran temporarily halted key aspects of its nuclear program when it faced what it deemed the real potential of a U.S. military attack after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Only if Iran’s leaders again fully understand that future nuclear advances would result in a devastating military strike will they be deterred from inching closer to nuclear weapons, which would menace international peace and security for decades.



Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, served as director for counterproliferation strategy on the National Security Council staff of the George W. Bush administration. Matthew Kroenig, a Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as adviser on Middle East policy in the office of the secretary of defense from 2010 to 2011.

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Before attacking Iran, Israel should learn from its 1981 strike on Iraq

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