Lt. General Robert G. Gard Jr. (USA, Ret.) Headshot

Obama and Rouhani Should Meet

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This week, Iran's recently elected moderate President Hassan Rouhani will stand before the UN General Assembly and reaffirm for the world Iran's renewed commitment to a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff. The Obama administration should use this opportunity to test Tehran's flexibility to agree to a negotiated solution on its nuclear program, one that has the potential to advance America's national security interests in the broader Middle East.

Rouhani's speech comes at a time when Iran has sent increasingly positive signals toward the United States and the West, released political prisoners, limited advances in its nuclear program and made statements at the highest levels of government that indicate willingness to make a deal.

Some have quickly dismissed these signals from Tehran, arguing for a more forceful approach. This small but noisy chorus in Washington has squawked about the use of military force as an effective -- even desirable -- means to end Iran's nuclear program. Among them, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) recently announced he'll pursue an authorization to use military force against Iran.

There is and always has been a consistent, decided maxim of conflict: war is a means to a political end, not an end in and of itself. This lesson of history is often lost in partisan Washington political squabbles and it's an important one to reflect on when dealing with Iran.

Military action, in the rare instances when it is elaborated on beyond simple talking points, is often couched in language of a surgical military strike, one that could be carried out quickly without American military forces being deployed on the ground.

Even the planners of the Iraq war would have called this type of thinking naive.

Credible estimates from The Iran Project -- an esteemed nonpartisan group of the nation's leading national security officials -- concluded that a U.S. attack on Iran would actually increase Iran's motivation to build a bomb due to Iran's leadership's becoming more convinced that regime change is the goal of U.S. policy and, therefore, building a bomb would be seen as armor against further attacks.

Reflecting on government discussion about attacking Iran during the George W. Bush administration, former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden said, "the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent -- an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon." A limited military attack that drives Iran to the bomb would be extremely counter-productive to America's national security interests.

Learning the wrong lesson, others have called for a more forceful approach still, that the goal of American military force in Iran should be focused on regime change. The capability to carry out such an extensive operation is hardly ever discussed: it would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

As Admiral Joe Sestak rightly noted, "A military strike, whether it's by land or air, against Iran would make the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion look like a cakewalk with regard to the impact on the United States' national security." An operation of this scale would require blood, treasure and nation building in the Middle East for the foreseeable future; and the durability in the long-term of a favorable pro-Western government is far from assured.

Diplomacy is the only path to achieving a solution to the nuclear crisis. This will not be an easy path, but it is the right one to take. The stakes are simply too high to abstain from a strong diplomatic effort.