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The Race for Iran

Robert Wright On The Upcoming Nuclear Conference

(Photo Credit: United Nations Photostream)

Another nuclear conference is on the horizon. That’s right – the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – a once-every-five-years gathering of the nearly 200 parties to the treaty – begins next week and lasts through May 28.

New America Foundation Senior Research Fellow Robert Wright has posted an informative post at the New York Times on the conference’s likely outcomes.

Wright’s entire piece is worth reading, but one theme I want to highlight is Wright’s emphasis on the harmful legacy of the Bush years – a problem particularly acute in the nuclear non-proliferation arena.

In particular, Wright takes aim at the Bush administration for its nuclear agreement with India (a non-signatory to the NPT) and its opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Here is what he says:

In 2006 President Bush reached a deal with India — which had refused to join the treaty and built nuclear weapons instead — that actually gave India American nuclear technology!

Though the assistance was to the civilian part of India’s nuclear program, the deal frees up resources for India to build more nuclear weapons should it decide to. So the message from Bush was: If you stay out of the treaty so you can build nuclear weapons, we’ll help you build even more — so long as you’re our friend. And, since the India deal remains intact, so does that message.

The Bush administration also opposed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would keep us, and the rest of the world, from setting off nuclear explosions for test purposes (and which, notwithstanding hawk hysterics, wouldn’t erode the strength of our nuclear arsenal). This is one reason that the last nonproliferation treaty review conference, in 2005, collapsed in acrimony. (For a fuller sense of how thoroughly Bush undermined the 2005 conference, read the third paragraph of this.)

With reference to Iran, Wright also calls for a more principled American position on nuclear weapons:

But, believe it or not, not everyone shares America’s views of which nations seem responsible and restrained. Some Indians aren’t sure Pakistanis are responsible stewards of nuclear weapons (and might say, as we say about Iran, that Pakistan sponsors terrorism). Among some Pakistanis the feelings are mutual. And there are Arabs who consider Israel manifestly capable of disproportionate response to provocation.

The point isn’t that these Indians, Pakistanis and Arabs are right. The point is that if you’re serious about international laws and norms, you have to make their application independent of judgment calls like this. Otherwise you wind up looking as if you’re just saying that your friends can have nukes and their friends can’t, which leads to annoyance.

Wright’s full piece can be read here.

— Ben Katcher



I am pleased to report that Hillary gave birth yesterday to the newest member of our family, a beautiful baby girl named Karin Elizabeth Leverett.  Both mother and daughter are doing fine.  Inshallah, everyone will be home by tomorrow. 

Hillary and I may not be doing much posting of our own for the balance of the week.  Our colleague, Ben Katcher, will keep www.TheRaceForIran.com updated over the next few days, and Hillary and I will be back at it next week.  We send our thanks to the growing number of people who read www.TheRaceForIran.com.    

–Flynt Leverett


Straight Talk From Dimitri Simes On Russia’s Position on Sanctions

(Photo Credit: New America Foundation’s Photostream)

Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes has an important article in Time Magazine that raises questions about the START follow-on treaty signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev earlier this month and casts doubt upon the Obama administration’s efforts to enlist Russian support for serious sanctions against Iran.

Here is what Simes says about Russia’s position on sanctions:

Whether the treaty will really help to get tough sanctions on Iran is another matter entirely, however. There is no mystery of what might make Moscow more cooperative on Iran. Far-reaching sanctions would cost Russia billions. To compensate Russia, Washington would need to facilitate greater economic cooperation, and as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stressed on several occasions, this would require canceling the Jackson-Vanik amendment and helping Russia gain membership in the WTO. However, these moves would face opposition in Congress. The administration has indicated that this would be the right direction to take but has not yet made an effort to make that happen.

Although United Nations Security Council sanctions seem increasingly likely (even the Bush Administration succeeded three times at that), there is a difference between getting a deal and getting results. The new arms control treaty demonstrates that it is easier to produce nice-sounding diplomatic documents than to take major steps toward advancing American security. Iran will be the key test of U.S.-Russian relations and, unfortunately, watered-down sanctions from a divided Security Council are unlikely to move Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Simes’ suggestion that the Obama administration may be exaggerating Russia’s willingness to support serious sanctions on Iran echoes arguments made by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett on this blog. (see here, here, here and here).

— Ben Katcher


Flynt Leverett and Abbas Milani On The Riz Khan Show

This past Wednesday The Race for Iran Publisher and New America Foundation/Iran Initiative Director Flynt Leverett appeared with Stanford University Director of Iran Studies Abbas Milani to discuss the United States’ policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Leverett suggested that the Obama administration has struggled to make the difficult choices necessary to pursue strategic engagement with Iran, while Milani placed more of the blame on the Iranian side.

One aspect of the discussion between Leverett and Milani deserves special attention.

The United States remains committed to its policy of “no enrichment” – meaning that the United States continue to oppose the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil. Leverett points out that this is a faulty basis for U.S. policy given that Iran is already enriching uranium – an activity explicitly permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – and is extremely unlikely to give up its uranium enrichment program at this point.

In response, Milani claims that the NPT says that the right to uranium enrichment is “abrogated” if a country is found to be in violation of the Treaty. As Leverett points out in the segment above, the treaty does not, in fact, include such a provision.

I have pasted the relevant articles of the NPT below to illustrate this point:

Article IV

1. Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.

2. All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so shall also co-operate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.

Article V

Each Party to the Treaty undertakes to take appropriate measures to ensure that, in accordance with this Treaty, under appropriate international observation and through appropriate international procedures, potential benefits from any peaceful applications of nuclear explosions will be made available to non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty on a non-discriminatory basis and that the charge to such Parties for the explosive devices used will be as low as possible and exclude any charge for research and development. Non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty shall be able to obtain such benefits, pursuant to a special international agreement or agreements, through an appropriate international body with adequate representation of non-nuclear-weapon States. Negotiations on this subject shall commence as soon as possible after the Treaty enters into force. Non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty so desiring may also obtain such benefits pursuant to bilateral agreements.

Article VI

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

The full text of the NPT can be found here.

— Ben Katcher



Today, POLITICO published our newest Op-Ed, “Obama’s Slippery Slope to Strikes On Iran”.  (excerpts below but also worth reading in full on POLITICO.com)

Our piece was prompted by the partial leak of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ January 2010 memo on Iran to The New York Times last week and subsequent statements by Gates and one of his key deputies, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Fluornoy.  As we note in our Op Ed, these developments reveal two crucial points: 

“First, the Obama administration is deeply divided about its Iran policy, beyond the current effort to get new sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council.  Second—and more important—there is a serious risk that President Barack Obama may eventually be maneuvered into ordering military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.”       

Gates’ memo—which has been widely discussed since its partial leak to The New York Times but not especially well understood by the punditocracy—is consistent with the Defense Secretary’s views on Iran, going back to his service in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration.  Gates is deeply skeptical that attacking Iranian nuclear targets will accomplish anything of strategic significance, and believes the potential downsides—including retaliation against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq—could be several damaging to America’s regional position. 

As we write in POLITICO,

“Gates also seems to believe that the United States can ‘contain’ an Iran that has mastered uranium enrichment but stops short of actually building a nuclear weapon.  Even if Iran follows detonates a device, in Gates’s view it should still be eminently containable.” 

In sum, both Gates and America’s senior uniformed military leadership believe that the United States does not need to go to war over Iran’s nuclear program.  But senior officers privately express concern that the Pentagon’s preference for containment over military confrontation with Iran “is not getting the traction it should in the Obama Administration’s policymaking process.”  In this context, Gates’ January 2010 memo was intended “to leapfrog the interagency process and ‘tee up’ for presidential decision a number of specific items required for serious pursuit of a containment strategy.” 

But the Pentagon’s strong preference for containment is opposed by powerful figures at the White House—“including Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Senior Director for the ‘Central Region’ (including Iran) Dennis Ross.”  The “senior officials” who leaked Gates’ memo

“were clearly seeking to use their selective description to catalyze more robust planning for potential military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  The very option that Gates has consistently opposed.  This explains Gates’ public claim that his memo had been ‘mischaracterized’ by the leaker.  It also explains Fluornoy’s later statement that an attack against Iran is ‘off the table in the near term.’ (Though, after White House intervention, Gates’ spokesman walked back Flournoy’s comment.)”      

For some at the White House, “containment is problematic because it would be interpreted in Israel and pro-Israeli circles here as giving up on preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.”  But, we go on to note that

“others in this camp may actually believe that Washington should be preparing for military action against Iran.  As [Dennis] Ross told us before he returned to government service in the Obama administration, President George W. Bush’s successor would probably need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  Pursuing diplomatic initiatives early in Obama’s tenure, Ross said, would be necessary to justify potential military action to domestic and international constituencies. 

That is precisely what the administration has done.  First, by pursuing half-hearted diplomatic initiatives toward Tehran.  Then, when Iran did not embrace them, blaming Iran for the impasse.  Adopting containment as the administration’s posture toward Iran might undermine some White House officials’ efforts to prepare the political ground for an eventual presidential decision approving military strikes.” 

We conclude with this argument:  

Obama’s overly hedged approach to diplomacy with Tehran has succeeded only in giving engagement a bad name.  Now, he has surrendered the high ground of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that he courageously staked out during the 2008 presidential campaign, leaving militarized containment as his administration’s “moderate” (even “dovish”) alternative to more coercive options

Gates is correct that a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation would be severely damaging to Washington’s strategic position.  But containment is an inherently unstable and dangerous posture—perhaps likely to end up sparking a U.S.-Iranian war.  Meanwhile, failing to pursue serious, strategically-grounded engagement with Tehran could continue to leave the administration’s Middle East policies in free fall—accelerating the erosion of U.S. influence in this critical region.”      

There must be a better way to do foreign policy than this.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett