Statements and Speeches

Rethinking U.S. Policy towards Iran

Keynote Address - National Iranian American Council Conference

Nov 18 2008

I would like to thank the National Iranian American Council, particularly its president, Dr. Trita Parsi, for the opportunity to speak to this distinguished crowd today. 
I also want to acknowledge the presence of two courageous Americans here today: Ambassador Bruce Laingen, the former Charge d’affairs at our Embassy in Tehran, and Ambassador John Limbert, the former Political Officer there. They were two of the 52 Americans taken captive when Iranian militants seized the United States Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. They were held hostage for 444 days in Iran before being released. Thank you very much for your outstanding and brave service to our country. 
I am also honored to be in the good company of Ambassador James Dobbins, who successfully recruited Iran to play an important, constructive role in the Bonn Conference to stabilize Afghanistan in 2001; Professor Farhi, one of the best analysts of Iran in the United States; Joseph Cirincione, a prominent, non-proliferation expert; and my friends Congressman John Tierney and Senator Arlen Specter. If now is a time for thoughtful, creative and courageous ideas on how our 44th president should approach Iran, their voices should figure prominently in this discussion.
It has often been said that one of the greatest challenges for a U.S. president is separating the urgent from the important. When President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden enter the White House on January 20th, their inboxes will be full of both. 
The Obama-Biden administration will face pressing global and domestic issues: Political instability in Iraq. The need to devise a fresh strategy in Afghanistan, re-tool U.S. policy towards Pakistan, and address prospects for a Middle East peace agreement. 
They will face the challenge of global climate change, the need for nuclear arms reductions, and a new energy policy, not to mention the economic, policy, and security challenges posed by a nationalistic Russia, North Korea, a rising China, and India. 
They will also face enormous domestic challenges, such as a crumbling U.S. economy facing recession, the hemorrhaging of home foreclosures, a broken healthcare system, and soaring federal deficits.
The list is long. Needless to say, the new president will have many sobering choices to make – choices of great consequence that require visionary leadership and thinking outside the box.
One choice is clear: We cannot afford to ignore the Middle East, where “the dangerous meets the most intractable of America’s strategic challenges.” In my view, there are few more urgent and complex challenges facing the new administration than Iran. 
The Iranian President has denied multiple times that the Holocaust ever occurred and has threatened, time and again, to wipe Israel off the map. And, last Wednesday, Iran successfully test-fired a new generation of long range surface-to-surface missiles that could easily strike Israel and even hit as far as southeastern Europe. It is easily understandable why Israel perceives Iran as an existential threat.
Iran is considered the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism. We know Iran is the force behind Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as militant Shia elements in Iraq. In his Senate testimony last April, General David Petraeus – the former top U.S. Commander in Iraq – said Iranian armed militias are the biggest threat to stability in Iraq. Furthermore, press reports have suggested that certain elements in Iran may be shipping arms to the Taliban, which is now stronger than ever in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
It goes without saying that a nuclear weapon makes Iran an even more formidable threat, posing grave and unacceptable threats both to Israel and the United States as well as to Iran’s neighbors. As my long-time friend and our new Vice President-elect Joe Biden said this summer, “Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would dramatically destabilize an already unstable region and probably fuel a nuclear arms race in the region. It is profoundly in our interest to prevent that from happening.” I could not agree more. 
It is worth pausing to remember that when President George W. Bush came to office in January 2001, Iran was not a nuclear power state. When President Bush leaves office in 63 days, Iran will be much closer to acquiring the capacity either to assemble nuclear weapons or build a break-out capability. For this reason alone, it is increasingly clear that current policies are not preventing a nuclear Iran. 
Although the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons development program in the fall of 2003, it also importantly affirmed Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium and its simultaneous pursuit of ballistic missile delivery capabilities. Given that the production of fissile material is the most challenging aspect of the process of building a nuclear weapon, Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium is cause for real, immediate concern and warrants continued action by the U.S. and the international community. As former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns has said “The straightest avenue to nuclear weapons capability is not weaponization” but “enrichment and reprocessing.” 
Add to this the Iranian President’s April announcement that Iran’s scientists and experts have started to install 6,000 new centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. These are in addition to the 3,300 centrifuges’ that the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency – Mohammed El Baradei – has stated are already operating there.
Furthermore, Iran has indicated it will move toward large-scale uranium enrichment that will ultimately involve 54,000 centrifuges. 
Unfortunately, last week’s Paris talks by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the European Union did not reach agreement on further steps to pressure Iran to halt uranium enrichment at its facility in Natanz. 
Regardless of whether we accept the Israeli intelligence estimate that Iran is expected to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon before the end of 2009, or the American one – that Iran will most likely get there within several years – the new administration must focus its energies carefully and quickly. 
Last April, I held a hearing on Iran as chairman of the subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, part of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Our hearing examined what the United States and its allies must do to develop a coherent, long-term Iran strategy. Specifically, we discussed the range of different options our nation might employ to alter Iran’s behavior before it develops a nuclear weapon.
The new administration has three main options – continue the status quo, engage, or use military force. I have concluded – as have President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden – that it is time for the United States to engage, by pursuing a robust and aggressive diplomacy, including direct, comprehensive talks with the Iranians that address their nuclear program and support of terrorism, among other issues. At our hearing, Dennis Ross, a former top Mideast envoy for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, summed up why the United States must adopt direct diplomacy without conditions: He said: “you don’t want to be left with only two choices – war or living with an Iranian bomb.” 
It must be said that in order to defend our security and our close ally Israel, military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites should remain on the table. The threat Israel fears is real and must be taken seriously. However, a number of policymakers believe, and I concur, that military force would be ill-advised. First, any strike would be difficult to execute as there is little known about exactly where the Iranian facilities are located. Second, U.S. or Israeli military strikes would likely rally a mostly pro-American population around the highly unpopular government of President Ahmadinejad. Third, they would surely prompt widespread Iranian retaliation throughout the region, particularly in Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Iraq. Finally, any kind of unilateral military action – particularly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq – would lack the necessary international support.
To its credit, the Bush Administration has shifted rather significantly in recent years from rhetoric centered on regime change to a more pragmatic approach characterized by multilateral talks with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. 

As part of this diplomacy, in 2006, the United States offered a package of incentives, with the stated objective that should Iran suspend its enrichment-related and proliferation-sensitive activities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would meet directly with her Iranian counterpart.

But two years of inadequate diplomatic efforts and five UN Security Council Resolutions have not forced Iran to suspend its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. Some experts believe this trajectory has worked and could still work if the United States achieves greater Russian and Chinese cooperation.   Many others believe that no amount of diplomacy will prevent a nuclear Iran from emerging. In fact, some now assume a nuclear Iran as their starting point for how we should approach Iran. 

I am not of that mindset and believe we must continue efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran. I believe we can increase our chances of avoiding the terrible outcomes of war or a nuclear Iran by joining our European, Chinese, and Russian allies (the P5+1) in developing an effective, long-term strategy of tough diplomacy towards Iran. The way to stop or at least mitigate Iran’s enrichment activities is to present Iran with an enhanced set of carrots and sticks in order to change its “cost-benefit analysis.” As Vice President-elect Biden has said, and again, I agree, “the time has come for us to strike a new bargain with our ‘P5+1’ partners. The net effect of demanding preconditions that Iran rejects is this: We get no results and Iran gets closer to the bomb.”
To that end, I leave you with several thought-provoking questions that must be thoughtfully considered as the new administration develops its policies – hopefully in a bipartisan manner – on Iran:
One: Would the Iranians accept a United States offer to talk without preconditions? Realistically, what would direct talks with the Iranians accomplish? How should those talks be structured? Who in Iran should American diplomats talk to? And, when should we talk to Tehran?

Two: As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman astutely points out, “when you have leverage, talk… when you don’t have leverage, get some.” Does the United States have any leverage with Iran? If the answer is no, how do we develop leverage?

Three: As a way of developing leverage with Iran, what other economic, political, and security incentives should the Obama Administration consider offering? For example, should President-Elect Obama first focus on smaller, confidence-building measures, such as cooperation on Afghanistan, where both the United States and Iran have overlapping interests? Should the new administration send a signal that the United States is not interested in regime change, or offer Tehran security guarantees if it halts its uranium enrichment?   At the very least, should the United States look for ways outside government – as Secretary of Defense Gates suggested recently – “to open up the channels and get more of a flow of people back and forth?”

Four: In addition to offering incentives, we must also continue applying even more pressure to the struggling Iranian economy. Along with Secretary Gates, and President-elect Obama and Vice-President-elect Biden, I believe in progressively ratcheting up sanctions. Sanctions provide leverage for negotiations. We may have more diplomatic leverage now, given the extreme drop in oil prices. The lower they go, the better our chances may be of persuading Iran to halt its nuclear efforts.

Five: And what of Israel? Will Israel preemptively attack certain Iranian nuclear sites? Within what time period? Israeli elections, scheduled for February 2009 as well as a volatile presidential election scheduled in Iran for June of next year, will certainly influence policy calculations between now and then.

Finally: How do we prepare for the possibility that our best efforts might not persuade Iran’s leaders stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons? Sometimes even our best efforts do not work. That may be the case with Iran. 

But, I strongly believe that before we reach that conclusion, we must give serious diplomacy our very best try.