U.S., allies set the stage to increase pressure on Iran

Posted April 14, 2010, at 8:23 p.m.

After a year of quiet diplomacy and a readiness to engage Iran, President Obama must soon take a tougher stand against the Iranian regime’s determined pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.

Right-wing critics of the idea of engagement continue to decry weakness or, foolishly, call for another war. But the fact is that Barack Obama, reversing years of counterproductive unilateralism and rhetorical excess by the Bush administration, has carefully set the stage for a more effective international campaign against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The centerpiece of U.S. and international strategy remains a comprehensive set of sanctions, now focused on measures that will target regime leaders, especially the Revolutionary Guards, military leaders who direct the enterprises that control much of the Iranian economy.

President Obama has worked hard to improve relations with Russia and China, two key members of the Security Council that have been skeptical of imposing strict sanctions on Iran. The administration shifted course on several critical issues with the two countries – adjustments that have led both nations to indicate greater support for a higher level of sanctions.

An Obama shift on missile defense, combined with Iran’s rejection of a plan to transfer enriched nuclear fuel to Russia, has led to improved relations with Moscow. China’s support for sanctions is less certain, but Chinese leaders recently have been more critical of Tehran’s defiance of international efforts.

A strategic consideration for China is its dependence on oil imports for its dynamic economy — 12 percent from Iran. Yet a sharp increase in Chinese imports from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally equally worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, suggests that China may be ready to offset a potential Iranian cutoff.

Other key U.N. members, Britain, Germany and France, are more aligned with Washington’s policy — especially France, which has become even tougher than Washington in its assessment of Iran’s behavior.

The Obama commitment to engagement played a valuable role in shaping conditions that now allow Washington to take a harder line. In the past, especially during the Bush-Cheney years, Tehran’s rulers routinely cited threats by “the Great Satan” to overthrow the regime as justification for an aggressive policy and for pursuing nuclear power (the regime still denies that it is pursuing nuclear weapons).

“The engagement policy,” notes Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour, “has been very useful in demonstrating the intransigence of the Iranian regime.”

Yet, it is now time to focus attention on the tyrannical nature of the regime in Tehran, which has lost much of its legitimacy and popularity within Iran after the disputed 2009 election and a merciless crackdown on opposition forces.

The crackdown has included mass jailing of opposition activists, closing many media outlets and reports of as many as 50 executions and murders by the regime and by its Basij militia.

It is impossible to predict whether the regime can retain its grip on power. But its lack of support among a predominantly young and educated population is one new development that strengthens a more united international campaign.

And that’s in part why President Obama should ratchet up rhetorical and political pressure at this point. Obama must choose an appropriate moment and forum. This week’s remarkable summit on nuclear security, with its focus on leakage of nuclear material, was not the right time, though the opportunity to talk quietly with the Chinese leader may yield results.

In coming months, the president should find an occasion to deliver a tough-minded speech on Iran. Iran’s human rights record is just about the worst in the world among major powers and a compelling case can be made that connects its behavior directly to deep international distrust of its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The regime of the ayatollahs has had several ruthless periods. In 1981, two years after the revolution, the regime executed about 6,000 opponents. In 1988, shortly after its cease fire with Iraq, the regime executed 2,800 leftist prisoners. Today, on a per capita basis, it leads the world in executions — China, in sheer numbers, is first.

Iran’s current crackdown pales in comparison to the 1980s, but a blunt portrait of the regime’s tyranny can focus on individual cases, including that of a Canadian woman journalist killed in a Tehran prison, the young woman protester shot to death during a demonstration last summer or any number of summary trials and executions in the last year.

For all that, it is very possible that tougher sanctions and international distrust of Iran will not deter the regime from proceeding to gain a nuclear capability in the near future. Intelligence estimates indicate Iran may possess a nuclear capability within two to three years. The options then become much more complex and will require an even bolder, more sophisticated international strategy.

I will discuss those prospects, mainly the outlook for success of a containment strategy, in this column next month, on the third Thursday, May 20.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic, a former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, worked on national security issues for the Department of State. His e-mail address is fhill207@gmail.com.

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