Iran's nuclear program has been one headache after another for the United States. While proliferation in the Middle East is a legitimate concern, the United States needs to stop wasting precious diplomatic leverage and credibility and face the facts -- Iran is headed for nuclear weapons capability. Washington needs to engage the Iranian leadership now and push for full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Refusing dialogue, watching Iranian enrichment activity progress, and lamenting the failure of economic pressure is not going to cut it.
First and foremost, nuclear capable does not mean nuclear armed. A nuclear capable state possesses the technical expertise and materials to move quickly to create a weapon -- there are forty such states now. It is possible, were Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA, for it to join the club without violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran's nuclear program is supported across the political spectrum and is part and parcel of both conservative and reformist rhetoric. Iran wants to be a heavy-weight regional player and deter a conventional military attack -- nuclear capability would grant it this. The problem is, as IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has repeatedly said, they're not cooperating with inspectors. Unfortunately, the sticks the Obama administration has armed themselves with aren't doing the trick.
With China and Japan still willing to buy Iranian oil and expanded business ventures in Latin America, Iran is not going to be pushed into a corner by U.S.-led economic pressure. In 2010, the World Bank ranked Iran's economy as the eighteenth largest in terms of purchasing power parity and it's growing. While Congress is itching to sanction Iran's Central Bank, the biggest consumers of Iranian oil would need to sign on to the initiative at the expense of their own economic well-being for it to have any real impact.
Although the sanctions the Obama administration imposed have hurt Iran's economy, they have also created a rally-around-the-flag (or in this case the nuclear facility) phenomenon. Supreme Leader Khamenei has viewed the sanctions as liberation from foreign dependency and an opportunity to become more efficient. In fact, Iran has claimed that it will soon begin using more advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium at three times the rate of the old ones. The IAEA's May report (PDF) on Iran's program made two things clear: low uranium enrichment production is significantly increasing and Iranian cooperation with IAEA inspectors is further deteriorating. The sanctions aren't working.
A conventional military strike by the United States would, at best, set the program back a few years. It is also the most surefire way to ensure the hardliners in Iran prevail in their push to weaponize. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen has gone so far as to say a military strike would not work. Some in Washington have hinted that the military rhetoric is a tactic to push Iran into a compromise, but this is clearly not having the desired effect.
The Obama administration needs to acknowledge the limited efficacy of sanctions and reevaluate the fanciful notion that Iran will suspend enrichment. Washington needs to offer up some more carrots.
The Obama Administration needs to reach out to President Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Salehi. Substantive dialogue does not translate into blanket approval for all of a country's activities -- see China. When the most recent round of negotiations with Iran fell apart, the Obama administration offered no flexibility, but rather a "take it or leave it" approach. In a perfect world, the United States would have more leverage, but this is currently not the case and treating conversation as a privilege is short-sighted and counterproductive. Salehi said in a recent interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency that Iran is willing to negotiate with the United States as equals and without preconditions.
The Russians recently introduced the Lavrov Plan, which would freeze some of the sanctions in exchange for increased Iranian cooperation with IAEA inspectors. The Iranians are looking at the proposal as a gesture of "goodwill." While Secretary Clinton said after her July meeting with Lavrov that "we are cooperating on addressing Iran's nuclear threat," the United States should lead the charge on negotiations, not stand on the sidelines.
The United States needs to let Israel know that they are on their side. Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic rhetoric has only exacerbated existing tensions between the two countries. But, despite the ideological animosity, Iran and Israel have never directly engaged in combat. Israel's support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war shows that Israel can reach an accommodation when absolutely necessary. A major concern is that a nuclear capable Iran would be emboldened to further support Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the region at the expense of Israel. But Israel's own nuclear capability and superior conventional military compounded by its support from the United States would counterbalance any extremes on this front. To avoid an Israeli bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities, the United States will need to do some diplomatic backbends, but this needs to be a priority.
Washington will also need to prepare the neighboring states so they will be less vulnerable to a newly empowered Iran. Pushing for a regional security umbrella to ensure Iran cannot flex its muscles against the weaker Gulf States will be critical. The Obama administration can do this by providing more conventional weapons and training.
A nuclear Iran could be contained. Although Iran is testing ballistic missiles, and you can hear whispers in Washington that the "mad mullahs" of Tehran are crazy enough to actually use nuclear weapons, Iran's leadership is not suicidal. Most mainstream arguments tend to focus on how Iran would leverage nuclear capability, not who they would attack.
U.S. policy has always been that a nuclear capable Iran is unacceptable. The Obama administration should by no means endorse or condone Iran's continued enrichment activities, but it will much better serve our interests to deal with it.