by Derek Davison
One of the unintended consequences of the decision to extend the international talks on Iran’s nuclear program is the growing number of neoconservative calls for even more pressure on Iran. So it was on July 28 that the Gemunder Center Iran Task Force, a creation of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), hosted a panel discussion, “The Elusive Final Deal with Iran: Developments and Options Going Forward,” the participants of which all agreed on the need to “pressure” Iran now, and presumably forever, or at least until a new regime takes over in Tehran (which will be any day now, surely).
The substance of the discussion closely mirrored JINSA’s July 17 report, “Improving the Prospects for an Acceptable Final Deal with Iran,” which also focused on “pressure.” The panel repeatedly made the case for more pressure, which highlighted the shifting goalposts that have marked the neocon approach to the talks between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) since they began.
America and its allies were supposed to pressure Iran into negotiating and bringing its nuclear program into compliance with international expectations. Now that Iran is (again) negotiating and is in compliance, the calls for increasing pressure continue from neoconservative think tanks and certain actors on Capitol Hill.
When Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations talks about the importance of increasing pressure on Iran while “giving them a way out,” it’s not quite clear how that differs from what has already happened up until this point. Now American pressure is supposed to leverage not just Iran’s participation in the talks, not only its compliance with its NPT obligations, but also inspire Iranian capitulation to the agenda of American hawks. Iran’s failure to capitulate is proof positive that it hasn’t been pressured enough. Either the Iran hawks aren’t getting the hang of this “negotiating” thing or they consider “pressuring” Iran the end, not the means.
So what should pressure amount to when it comes to Iran and the nuclear talks? According to the JINSA report, Iran “respects only strength” (that really is a direct quote), so naturally a “credible” military threat is required. This requires more public threats of a military response, more public pledges to defend America’s regional allies from alleged Iranian aggression, more public tests of US “bunker buster” weaponry like the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP), and more weapons sales, including MOPs, to Israel.
The panel also heavily emphasized the idea that America must “compete” with Iran regionally, “interdicting Iranian actions” as Ambassador Dennis Ross put it. This would presumably ratchet up the “pressure” on Iran. But the chaotic state of affairs throughout the Middle East right now makes it almost impossible for the US to adopt an across-the-board policy of opposing Iranian action everywhere. There are three regional flashpoints where Iran is currently active: Gaza, where it may be strengthening its support for Hamas; Syria, where it supports Bashar al-Assad against the rebel factions trying to unseat him; and Iraq, where it supports the Shia-led government (even if its support for Nouri al-Maliki is waning) and opposes the Islamic State (IS).
In Gaza, the US can and will oppose Iranian activity that might harm Israeli interests, but in Syria the picture becomes muddled, since America supports some of the rebels fighting Assad (the Free Syrian Army) but opposes others (the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front and IS, also opposed by Iran). Meanwhile, in Iraq, for all practical purposes the US and Iran are on the same side, backing Maliki (or at least Baghdad) against IS and the Baathist Naqshbandi Army, though Washington has emphasized the need for a policy of reconciliation between Baghdad and Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis. JINSA’s report notes, in something of an understatement, that “the United States has been reticent to counter Iranian attempts to bolster its Shiite allies” in Syria and Iraq. Well, there’s a reason for that; doing so would materially damage US interests in Iraq and would risk the rise of a greater threat in Syria.
The panelists disagreed somewhat on the ideal length of a comprehensive deal. Ross, somewhat more realistically than his fellow panelists, suggested that an acceptable deal would sunset after 20 years, whereas former George W. Bush officials Stephen Rademaker and Eric Edelman seemed to be unhappy with a deal that would ever sunset. Rademaker specifically objects to language in the JPOA indicating that at the conclusion of a comprehensive solution, “the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.” While this would still leave Iran subject to Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, specifically its requirement that states comply with safeguards negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to prevent the development of a nuclear weapon, Rademaker insists that Iran should remain under the terms of a comprehensive deal indefinitely. This is certainly a non-starter for the Iranians, who have been clear that they will only accept a deal under which Iran will ultimately be treated like any other NPT-signatory, but maybe they’re only insisting on that point because the US hasn’t “pressured” them enough yet.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands after world powers reached an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program on November 24, 2013. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
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