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A Better National Security Strategy for Stopping Iran

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Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott calls the new US National Security Strategy introduced on Thursday "the most comprehensive National Security Strategy ever."

It is a strategy that offers a better chance of containing the Iranian nuclear program than the more unilateralist pursuits of the George W. Bush administration. It is not an untested, radical philosophy. Rather, as The New York Times' David Sanger notes, it "reads as an argument for a restoration of an older order of reliance on international institutions, updated to confront modern threats." Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton would all be comfortable with this framework.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Thursday at Brookings, outlining the fusion of defense, diplomacy and development in the new strategy, she took pains to point out that alliances don't mean sacrificing core security interests. Noting the long list of common interests and partnerships the US has with Brazil, she said, "that doesn't mean we always agree. I've told President Lula that buying time for Iran makes the world more dangerous."

The new strategy offers a more realistic path to stopping Iran, but it won't be easy.

Strengthening Alliances

At West Point, President Obama summarized the administration's approach:

The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we've always had the foresight to avoid acting alone.

Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation -- we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't.

There is little doubt that this is a direct rebuke of the policy of preventive war unveiled in the Bush 2002 National Security Strategy:

The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction-- and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

President Bush, using this policy to justify the invasion of Iraq, said in his 2003 State of the Union address:

If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.

At first, the March 2003 invasion seemed to have the desired impact on Iran. Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami offered a broad dialogue including cooperation on its nuclear programs. Flynt Leverett, a senior director on Bush's National Security Council, told the Washington Post, "At the time, the Iranians were not spinning centrifuges, they were not enriching uranium." The proposal was "a serious effort, a respectable effort to lay out a comprehensive agenda for US-Iranian rapprochement."

The Bush administration dismissed the proposal. They wanted to overthrow the government in Tehran, not negotiate a deal. It was a fatal mistake.

In 2003, Iran did not have any centrifuges spinning and had not enriched even a gram of uranium. By February 2009, as President Obama started his first full month in office, Iran had 5,412 centrifuges installed at its facility in Natanz, with plans to increase to 54,000, and had produced an estimated 1000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.

So in addition to a crippling financial crisis, a crushing deficit, an unbalanced budget, fractured alliances, lost US credibility and two difficult wars, Obama inherited a surging Iran. Iran's nuclear program advanced more in the last 5 years of the Bush Administration than it had in the previous 15 years.

The architects of the 2002 strategy seem to escape this history of failure. As former Bush officials now urge military strikes on Iran, they are rarely asked "why didn't you stop them when you had the chance?"

Repeating the failed policy of the past would ignore the sound military advice of US military leaders. Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, warns, "I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says a military strike would delay Iran's program by, at most 18 months. There is not a realistic military option.

A Comprehensive Approach

The 2010 National Security Strategy argues, instead:

Many years of refusing to engage Iran failed to reverse these trends; on the contrary, Iran's behavior became more threatening. Engagement is something we pursue without illusion. It can offer Iran a pathway to a better future, provided Iran's leaders are prepared to take it. But that better pathway can only be achieved if Iran's leaders change course, act to restore the confidence of the international community, and fulfill their obligations. The United States seeks a future in which Iran meets its international responsibilities, takes its rightful place in the community of nations, and enjoys the political and economic opportunities that its people deserve. Yet if the Iranian Government continues to refuse to live up to its international obligations, it will face greater isolation.

Clinton, in her talk, reinforced this approach. "We are re-building regional security alliances... giving adversary nations a clear choice through a dual-track approach."

The process is working. Iran has not been stopped, but as Vice-President Joe Biden says, the regime is more isolated internally, regionally and internationally than it has ever been. Even the Turkey-Brazil brokered deal was not designed to protect Iran, but rather to get Iran back to the negotiating table. Nor has this deal derailed the US efforts for new UN Security Council sanctions. Indeed, the harsh insults traded between Iran and Russia this week indicate that even Iran's major arms supplier has lost patience.

The Vice President is implementing this comprehensive approach on Iran even as the new strategy goes up on the web. On Wednesday, he hosted a private meeting in Washington of ambassadors from Arab nations to hammer out details of a plan to start a regional dialogue on eliminating nuclear weapons from the Middle East. As this author noted in a 2007 article and other reports, such an approach is key to building barriers to Iran's program:

The United States, the European Union, and others must not ignore Iran's location in a volatile region, where one of its adversaries, Israel, possesses nuclear weapons. This does not absolve Iran of its obligation to reassure its neighbors and the world that it will not seek nuclear weapons, but it makes it incumbent on the five permanent members of the Security Council to intensify efforts to create of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, a policy the United States has long supported but done little to implement. This should be backed by dramatic reductions in both the massive U.S. and Russian arsenals.

This plan appears to have a good chance of being approved by the 189 state members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty whose conference wraps up Friday at the United Nations. It will be one more brick in the wall going up around Iran, a wall the new US National Security Strategy is likely to strengthen.