Norm Kurz Headshot

The President's Narrowing Options on Iran

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Vice President Joe Biden is fond of saying that "big nations can't bluff." Perhaps the most trusted adviser to the President on national security issues, including Iran, Biden must be wondering how the Administration can square its rhetoric on Iran with its actions.

As Senator, Barack Obama was the lead sponsor of sanctions legislation against Iran, and in his Presidential campaign he could not have been more clear. A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat, and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, candidate Obama said in July, 2008, adding that the world should "offer big carrots and big sticks" to signal its seriousness.

Gaining almost universal approval, the Administration has delivered on half of that promise, with high ranking U.S. diplomats having met with their Iranian counterparts in the hope the President's outstretched hand would be met with an unclenched fist. Unfortunately, after more than a year of persistent efforts, Iran has rejected every proposal proffered by the U.S. and its allies to address Tehran's unshakable desire to continue to enrich uranium.

Almost every day brings new Iranian statements about programs and plans to build even more enrichment facilities - last week Tehran unveiled 10 more sites ready for construction - to hasten the day when Iran attains weapons grade material.

The day of reckoning for Iran, when the Administration might have been expected to fulfill the other half of its promise to show the mullahs that our negotiating basket contained "big sticks" along with the carrots, was supposed to arrive, according to the White House, by the end of last September, when the G-20 nations met in Pittsburgh. Earlier, the Administration had given Tehran an end of year deadline. Either way, both timelines, in the age-old language of Washington, have proved "inoperable."

The only thing that has changed during the past year, of course, is that for a period of a few months following the June 12 elections in Iran, the world's attention was focused on a regime many have come to see as illegitimate, its brutality finally unmasked. Prior to that day, anyone who spoke of regime change was labeled a neo-con and a war monger. After that day, democracy advocates and human rights activists did a 180 and became instant supporters of regime change as the vehicle to help millions of Iranians gain their freedom.

Globally, left and right united under the banner led by the Iranian opposition, with the notion of regime change emerging as the strategy by which Tehran's nuclear ambitions could be denied, notwithstanding scant evidence the Green Movement would slow Iran's drive for nukes. Predictably, the mullahs have turned the screws of oppression tighter. Now, they not only attack peaceful protesters in the streets, but with the assistance of western companies, they've acquired the tools to suppress and control the flow of information and the ability of the "greens" to communicate effectively with each other.

What can we do while a ruthless Iran intensifies the pace of its efforts to acquire nukes and to silence internal opposition, continues its brazen and open transfer of missiles and other munitions to Hizbollah and Hamas, ratcheting up regional instability, and uses its growing influence to undermine and dominate its neighbors?

For those who counsel pragmatism and realism as foundation stones for U.S. foreign policy, there's nothing more real than to respond with resolve to the threat posed to our national security by Iran. The true ideologues in the West are those who for decades have been in denial about the regime of the Ayatollahs and the genuine threats they pose. In their inability to see the mullahs realistically, the zealots are tireless in their efforts to construct arguments, excuses, and all manner of explanation completely unaffected by the steady and alarming drumbeat of Iranian behavior.

The ideologues regularly try to feed us a diet of happy talk about the growing influence of Iranian moderates. This is not new, as we have been told for decades that the seeming rigidity of the power elite in Tehran is a myth, that there is great diversity and meaningful debate among the mullahs. After 31 years of waiting for these distinctions to make a difference, it's time for foreign policy realists to take charge.

Given Iran's pronouncements in recent weeks about advances in its nuclear program, and the IAEA's new report this week alerting the world to Tehran's unmistakable efforts to build nuclear weapons, the time has come when President Obama's actions will begin speaking louder than his words. Tehran makes cost-benefit calculations every day and has chosen to continue along its belligerent course, believing the price of ignoring the U.S. is acceptable.

President Obama has been left with no choice but to alter Tehran's cost-benefit equation by applying the crippling sanctions he supported during his campaign, during his years as Senator and more recently as President. No less than Iran, corporations engaged in business-as-usual, propping up Iran's leadership, must be forced to conduct a new cost-benefit analysis: you can play in Iran's $300 million economy or in the $13 trillion U.S. economy, but not both.

In these politically difficult times for the White House, there is no substitute for bold and determined American leadership committed to denying the goals of the messianic regime of the Ayatollahs. Ultimately, sanctioning the assets of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Iran's gasoline supplies, its banks and oil shipping capacity may not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But it is the only thing left that has a chance to prevent it peacefully.

For a President being tested almost daily by momentous challenges in an unforgiving part of the world, and who had hoped the reset button would yield greater flexibility, it may seem unfair to find the pressure mounting and the options narrowing. With Vice President Biden's words ringing in his ears, President Obama must be the realist who knows the time for crippling sanctions has arrived, because the only other paths remaining are even more unpalatable: suffering history's judgment that it was under his watch that Iran's mullahs attained their goal of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, or having to go to war to stop that eventuality.

Norm Kurz, President of The Kurz Company, was Joe Biden's communications director and spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2000 - 2006.