A New Way Forward with Iran

President Obama’s administration recently announced that it would not require Iran to cease uranium enrichment as a prerequisite for talks. This reflects a welcome change in policy from the Bush administration. Decades of sanctions—and a refusal to engage with Iran unless itmet stringent preconditions—failed to stop its nuclear enrichment program. While Iran suspended its official nuclear weapons program in 2003, we still face a dangerous situation today.

Iran possesses the knowledge and capability to enrich enough uranium to make one or two bombs a year, and it already has 2,200 pounds of low-enriched uranium—enough for one bomb upon further enrichment. The international community lacks sufficient oversight to be sure the Iranians are not operating a covert weapons program at this very moment and has no assurances that they will not resume their official weapons program at any time.

A nuclear Iran poses a serious threat to America and the international order. While much speculation about the dangers of a nuclear Iran focuses on the potential for Iran to use a nuclear bomb against American forces abroad or our homeland, the greater threat comes from the cascading effect of a nuclear Iran in the region and on the international stage.

In January, news surfaced that Israel secretly approached the Bush administration last year seeking flyover rights in Iraq and bunker-busting bombs to use in a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites. This should be cause for grave concern, because, given America’s ties to Israel, if Israel were to launch a preemptive strike against Iran, America would almost certainly be drawn into an explosive conflict. Furthermore, a nuclear Iran poses a potential threat to its neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, with which it is jockeying for control of the region and has longstanding religious disagreements. A bomb in Tehran might push Riyadh to seek one as well, which could start a nuclear armament race in the Middle East as Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq scramble to keep up. This is the last thing that the region needs.

It is clear that the international community must take steps to prevent Tehran from acquiring a bomb. America’s strategy so far—sanctioning Iran, refusing to talk until Iran meets unrealistic preconditions, and labeling Iran as part of the “axis of evil”—has only increased the danger to America from a nuclear Iran. It has not deterred it from seeking to expand its enrichment capabilities at Natantz from no centrifuges in 2005 to more than 3,000 today.

The Obama administration has an opportunity to change America’s approach and to engage with Iran on this issue, as well as other critical national security fronts, such as Tehran’s involvement in Iraq and its support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. Obama’s Nowruz message to the Islamic world signaled a sharp shift and willingness to open a new dialogue.

But, as Obama begins engagement with Iran, he should keep several things in mind. First, the Iranian enrichment program is completely legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Iran is highly unlikely to give it up. Furthermore, even if Iran were banned from operating an official enrichment program, now that Iranian scientists understand the process and have even constructed their own (higher-performing) centrifuges, we will still face the very real danger of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program. Therefore, a key component of the American solution must be a robust IAEA inspections program throughout the entire country, not just the current enrichment sites and a handful of other identified areas of interest. This must be coupled with a clear set of consequences for Iran if evidence surfaces of a reconstituted weapons program. Comprehensive inspections that the Iranians perceive as likely to uncover any covert program, coupled with serious punishments if the inspectors discover such a program, will be the best deterrent.

Sticks alone will not be sufficient. As history reveals time and time again, the greatest force for stability, growth, and a decrease in hostility toward the West is greater integration into the international systems of politics and economics. A plan including gradual lifting of sanctions and reestablishment of diplomatic relationships with Tehran encourages compliance with inspection requirements and heightens the stakes for Iran if it defaults. It also promotes a more positive relationship with Iran going forward and opens the door for cooperation on mutual objects like preventing the emergence of failed states in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, the U.S. must reaffirm its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation everywhere. We should lead by example and take public and significant efforts to reduce our weapons stockpiles as well as encouraging Russia to do the same. The rising calls of a number of eminent Americans, including the “Four Horsemen” (George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn) in several recent articles, lay out a nuclear-free world as the only possible stable endpoint. As long as nuclear weapons exist anywhere, no one is safe, particularly in this age of terrorism, when bombs can no longer serve as deterrents for stateless actors who believe themselves martyrs.

Obama’s presidency provides America with a window of opportunity to engage with Iran and chart a new productive course forward. But we must act soon, we must act intelligently, and we must recognize that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is important, but it is just one piece in the larger fight against nuclear proliferation worldwide—a fight we (and the world) must win.

Sarah E. Esty ’11 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. She is a member at large of the Harvard College Democrats.