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March 7, 2009

Call to 'Resist and Deter' Nuclear Iran Gains Key Support

by Jim Lobe

A new report on how the United States should "resist and deter" Iran's alleged ambitions to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability by a think tank closely tied to the so-called "Israel Lobby" has been endorsed by two key officials who are expected to exercise major influence on Iran policy in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The 10-page report, which was released here Wednesday by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), argues that the United States should engage with Iran diplomatically but at the same time ratchet up pressure on many other fronts if it fails to heed demands to suspend and eventually abandon its uranium enrichment program.

Among the carrots Washington should be prepared to offer Tehran for that goal are cooperation on "shared problems, such as piracy and smuggling in the Persian Gulf," and "participation in a regional security dialogue," according to the report.

At the same time, however, the report stressed that failure to stop Iran's nuclear progress may well result in a decision by Israel to carry out a military attack within the next two years. Such a decision, it warned, could be hastened if Russia goes through with the sale and delivery of sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missile systems which "are seen by Israel as seriously limiting its military options."

"Whatever Americans may think, Israeli leaders seem convinced that at least for now, they have a military option," the report asserts, adding that if Tehran deploys such systems, Washington "should promptly provide Israel with the capabilities to continue to threaten high-value Iranian targets – for instance, with more modern aircraft."

"Time is short if diplomatic engagement is to have a chance of success," it asserts.

The new report, which comes amid a major administration review of U.S. policy toward Iran, is likely to be very closely read in European and Middle Eastern capitals due to its endorsement by Dennis Ross, who serves as Special Adviser on the Gulf and Southwest Asia to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Robert Einhorn, the senior State Department official on non-proliferation matters.

While both men resigned from the 17-member task force that helped draft the report after they were asked to join Obama's presidential transition team, WINEP stressed that they had formally endorsed an early draft which was not substantially different from the final product.

Other members of the task force, which was convened by WINEP's director, Robert Satloff, and its deputy director of research, Patrick Clawson, included a number of prominent neo-conservatives, such as Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and some who served in senior posts under President George W. Bush, including former under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Robert Joseph; his immediate subordinate, Stephen Rademaker; and the former chairman of the Defense Science Board, William Schneider.

Rep. Gary Ackerman, a liberal Democrat who heads the House Subcommittee in the Middle East and South Asia, and Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees who has been a reliable supporter of the "Israel Lobby," also signed on to the report.

Ross's endorsement, however, is particularly notable. While the State Department has been vague about what his precise responsibilities will be, it is understood that he is responsible for developing a diplomatic strategy for dealing with Iran, particularly in how to marshal regional and international pressure on Tehran in support of Washington’s positions.

Ross is expected to coordinate with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, and Puneet Talwar, who has the Iran portfolio on the National Security Council. Both Burns and Talwar are considered less hawkish on Iran than Ross, former President Bill Clinton’s top Middle East negotiator who himself has held senior positions in WINEP and who last September signed on to another report by the Bipartisan Policy Center drafted by hard-line neo-conservatives.

Among other things, that report called for Washington to be prepared to launch military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities and conventional military infrastructure if Tehran did not accede to demands that it abandon its nuclear program.

WINEP, which was founded some 25 years ago as a spin-off of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is one of Washington’s most influential think tanks on Middle East policy, although, like AIPAC itself, its views and perspectives rarely deviate far from those of the Israeli government or national-security establishment.

Indeed, the major message of the latest report is that Iran’s acquisition of a military nuclear capability, the prevention of which is characterized as a "vital national priority" for the U.S., would set off a "cascade of destabilizing reactions by other states," which, it argues, would seek to emulate Tehran’s achievement, thus weakening the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and increasing the risks of "...a nuclear confrontation, with horrible consequences."

Yet the report omits any mention of the universally accepted view – accidentally confirmed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a December 2006 interview – that Israel already has nuclear weapons which may have had destabilizing consequences of their own.

The report, which coincided with Secretary of State Clinton’s first Middle East trip during which she reportedly expressed skepticism about the likelihood that diplomatic engagement with Iran would succeed but also invited Tehran to a conference on Afghanistan at the end of this month, offers a number of hints for how Ross hopes to carry out his diplomatic strategy.

It stresses that any offer on the nuclear issue should come from the Permanent Five Security Council members plus Germany – the group that has negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program to date – "not from the United States alone." "Arab countries, Turkey, and Israel" must also be involved so as to assure a unified voice.

It also emphasizes that any deal should not permit Tehran to enrich uranium on Iranian territory, arguing that such a precedent would itself contribute to proliferation. Moreover, "the international community ... should not foster debate among its members about what a compromise (on enrichment) acceptable to Iran might be." The report calls for a policy of "resist and deter" rather than "acquiesce and deter."

Instead, Washington should "respond to Iranian worries about ensuring access to fuel for its civilian nuclear power plant" by following through on its "announced intention to bring to fruition the international nuclear fuel bank [and] ... on the U.S. commitment to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty."

While it does not raise the possibility of gaining Russian support for U.S. efforts by offering to cancel Washington’s deployment of missile-defense systems to Poland and the Czech Republic – a deal that was reportedly alluded to in a letter from Obama to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev last month – it suggests that China could be brought along through pressure from "the Gulf states – especially Saudi Arabia" due to Beijing’s dependence on their "export markets and energy supplies."

The U.S. should also consider offering a "nuclear guarantee (or ‘umbrella’)" to its allies in the region as part of a deterrence strategy and should, in any case, build up their defensive capabilities if Iran persists in its nuclear program. In such a case, the report also calls for a rapid buildup in economic sanctions, including efforts to discourage countries and companies from building oil refineries in Iran or exporting refined petroleum products to the country.

Inter Press Service


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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