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Rethinking U.S. Policy Toward Iran

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered his characteristic anti-West speech Thursday at the U.N. General Assembly, prompting the ritual large-scale walkout by diplomats, including from the United States. Ahmadinejad's appearance at the U.N. came a day after Iran released two U.S. hikers, imprisoned in the country for more than two years. But the release followed a new disagreement between Ahmadinejad and the country's judiciary, who are aligned with the hard-line clerical establishment, which highlights a growing power struggle within Iran.

The rift between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei publicly surfaced in April when Khamenei reversed Ahmadinejad's decision to fire an intelligence minister. Since then, many of the Iranian president's closest supporters have either been arrested or are under investigation by the judiciary. "At the heart of the tussle between Ahmadinejad and his former clerical mentors," writes Jamsheed K. Choksy of the Center on American and Global Security, "is the question of whether the Islamic republic and its system of velayat-e faqih, or governance by an Islamic jurist, should endure or be discarded."

Ahmadinejad's diminishing political fortunes poses a dilemma for the U.S. on the seriousness of any deal the Iranian president proposes on the country's controversial nuclear program. In an interview with the New York Times' Nicholas D. Kristof this week, Ahmadinejad said Iran would give up enriching uranium for nuclear fuel if the West would supply uranium enriched to a 20 percent level. This contradicts Iran's nuclear program chief, who said Iran will not halt its production of 20 percent enriched uranium.

Despite the discrepancy, the U.S. should consider Ahmadinejad's offer, say nuclear experts David Albright and Christina Walrond. They recommend Washington arrange the sale of two years worth of nuclear fuel in exchange for a two-year halt to any production of uranium enriched over 5 percent. Even temporarily capping Iran's stock of enriched uranium, they add, "would reduce concern that Iran is producing weapon-grade uranium piecemeal."

Iran's decision to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium to 20 percent levels has been a top concern for the U.S., who believes Tehran is trying to create a nuclear weapons program. Tehran maintains its nuclear program is only to provide energy to the country. Meanwhile, estimates of Iran's nuclear progress vary widely among experts in the West.

A new report by the independent Institute for Science and International Security looks at Iran's increasing stockpile of enriched uranium and concludes that this is evidence that "Iran seeks at least the capability to build nuclear weapons." The latest quarterly report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog IAEA also points to concerns about the possible existence of undisclosed "activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."

However, nuclear experts from the Federation of American Scientists argue that the actual science of Iran's nuclear program, as revealed by the latest IAEA report, is far milder than what Tehran or Washington portrays.

Iran's noncompliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it cease its nuclear fuel-cycle activities has led to four rounds of U.N. sanctions and unilateral U.S. sanctions. U.S. policy toward Tehran, mostly comprising of carrot and stick, has so far failed to persuade Tehran to halt uranium enrichment.

CFR's Ray Takeyh and the Brookings Institution's Kenneth M. Pollack say the U.S. should increase pressure on the Iranian regime to slow down the nuclearization process and ultimately erode the regime's popular base. "An attempt to systematically hollow out the Islamist state should be one of Washington's top priorities." They recommend Washington connect with Iranian opposition groups, provide Internet freedom, sabotage Iran's nuclear program using computer viruses like Stuxnet, and expand the focus of the international community's ire at Iran from its nuclear program to its abuse of human rights.

However, former Iranian nuclear negotiator and diplomat Hossein Mousavian says rapprochement between Washington and Tehran is possible only through direct talks when, for the duration of engagement policy, "hostile actions, sanctions, and other forms of coercive pressure are put on hold." Recently, outgoing U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen also suggested that it would be in the U.S. national interest to resume contact with Tehran at a political, diplomatic or military-to-military level.

This article first appeared on CFR.org.