American projection of power and its ability to deter its enemies -- be they states or non-state armed groups such as Al Qaeda or Hezbollah -- are critical components of American defense policy. President-elect Obama will face a number of national security issues when he takes office in January: relations with Russia and China, ongoing negotiations with North Korea, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Arab-Israeli peace process. The most pressing crisis that he will need to deal with come day one, however, will be Iran"s nuclear weapons program.
The United States must re-examine the manner in which it has dealt with Iran's nuclear program. For too long, U.S. administrations have let their counterparts take the lead in Iranian negotiations. In the meantime, many of those involved in talks with the Iranians have themselves greatly benefited from economic cooperation with the Shiite Islamist regime. Russian assistance, for instance, will allow the Iranians to make their first nuclear plant operational by January 2009. The Germans continue to be the largest trading partner with the Iranians, a country it is supposedly trying to pressure. And NATO ally Turkey recently announced a $12 billion deal to invest in Iran's South Pars offshore gas field. Adept negotiators, the Iranians have used this time to secretly advance their nuclear weapons program while still turning a profit.
President-elect Obama must re-introduce coercive diplomacy as its chief strategy for negotiations with the Iranians. This tactic has proven time and again to be one of America's most effective tools. An Obama administration must begin direct talks with the Iranians, and make them understand that under no circumstances will it allow Iran to develop a nuclear capability. It must be made clear that the use of force is still most definitely on the table. Without the coercive threat of force, diplomacy with Iran will surely fail. At the same time, Obama must let the Russians, Chinese, Europeans and other allies understand that their full cooperation is expected through the use of genuine sticks as well as carrots to pressure Iran into foregoing its nuclear weapons program. The era of America's fellow negotiators speaking out of both sides of their diplomatic mouths must come to an end. A new president will be in town, and the period of blaming everything on the Bush Administration will be gone.
On October 23, 1983 a suicide truck bombing struck the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon where hundreds of American peacekeepers were being housed. It was the single deadliest attack on U.S. forces since D-Day on Iwo Jima back in World War II. Then-President Ronald Reagan pledged to keep American forces in the country, vowing that U.S. policy in Lebanon would not be altered. The United States did not respond to those attacks, and despite Reagan's statements, U.S. servicemen were withdrawn from the country within a matter of months.
As the first major attack against the United States by Islamist terrorists, that lack of reply was a severe blow to American deterrence. The withdrawal became a significant contributing factor to the "paper tiger" stereotype that the American establishment developed. This notion was reinforced a decade later in the sudden departure of U.S. forces from Somalia following the "Black Hawk Down" incident. These past examples provide important lessons for today: the failure to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons will have disastrous effects not just on the Middle East, but on America's deterrence for decades to come.
Time is running out for diplomacy to succeed, with new estimates predicting that by 2009 Iran will have enough material to develop a nuclear weapon. While some dismiss the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose, the truth is that Iran serves as the world's greatest state sponsor of terrorism, and has deep interests in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Assertions of a nuclear Iran moderating its positions seem risky and naïve at best. America's paper tiger image has resulted in devastating consequences from which the United States is still recovering, and the country can ill afford to have a repeat performance while it is in the midst of two difficult wars.
Allowing Iran to go nuclear would cause immeasurably destructive consequences to the United States and its projection of power in the world. It is without question that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan must be high on Obama's agenda, but before any other major foreign policy issue is dealt with by the new administration, the Iranian crisis must be effectively addressed once and for all. America's reputation and the world's security depend on it.