Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges and as I said during the campaign we have a situation in which not only is Iran exporting terrorism through Hamas, through Hezbollah but they are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race.The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (pdf), the consensus opinion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies:
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.
Naturally, Stephanopolous asked Obama -- as any competent, professional journalist would -- to explain why he disagreed with the findings of the intelligence community and of the international inspectors on the ground:
STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have to do something about it in your first year.
So it goes.
Meanwhile, with Dennis Ross reportedly Obama's pick to advise him on and help conduct U.S. policy toward Iran, those expecting a huge break from the Bush administration policy would seem to have every reason to be discouraged. Obama's stated willingness to at least talk with the Iranians is encouraging, but that willingness to engage will be of little comfort if his administration's ultimatums are the same as the Bush administration's -- e.g. requiring Iran to permanently outsource its enrichment of uranium, which it will never do for many nationalistic and historical reasons, while threatening military action if it does not comply.
As IPS Washington bureau chief Jim Lobe writes, Ross -- a former AIPAC lobbyist and co-founder along with Clinton-era CIA director (and prominent neoconservative) James Woolsey of the hawkish group, United Against Nuclear Iran -- is slated to "effectively manage the relationship with Iran in all its various forms, from nuclear proliferation, to support for non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, to Iraq, and the Gulf, etc. (although at least one anti-Ross source told me that even that much has not been nailed down completely)."
For a look at what that might mean, consider this editorial in The Wall Street Journal that Ross -- along with Woolsey and fellow United Against Nuclear Iran and likely future Obama official Richard Holbrooke -- penned concerning the "threat" of Iran, which "is now edging closer to being armed with nuclear weapons." Notable for its attempts to reach the most fearful conclusions imaginable while never mentioning that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors have found no evidence Iran is diverting nuclear material to a weapons program, the editorial also includes the whopper that, because of its "vast supplies of inexpensive oil and natural gas," there "is no legitimate economic reason for Iran to pursue nuclear energy."
While nuclear power may be an exceedingly expensive form of energy, that did not stop John McCain from advocating the building of dozens of new reactors over the next decade despite the U.S.'s large supplies of fossil fuels -- a platform I saw James Woolsely defend on numerous occasions for its supposed climate change and "energy security" benefits. Meanwhile, it would probably make more economic sense for Iran, as a major oil exporter, to pursue nuclear energy seeing as how every barrel of oil Iran does not use domestically it can sell on the world market -- a fact U.S. policymakers realized when they backed the Shah's nuclear efforts in the 1970s. (Whether nuclear energy is actually the best way for any country to achieve that goal is another question.)
Further insight into how Ross is likely to pursue Iranian policy can be seen in this op/ed in The Washington Post by former Senators Daniel Coats (R-IN) and Charles Robb (D-VA), which summarizes a report on Iran -- which Lobe generously terms "dreadful" -- put out by the Bipartisan Policy Center and endorsed by Ross:
[W]hile a diplomatic resolution is still possible, it can succeed only if we negotiate from a position of strength. This will require better coordination with our international partners and much stricter sanctions. Negotiations with Iran would probably be ineffective unless our European allies sever commercial relations with Tehran.Ross' reported appointment to a high-level position in the Obama administration having anything to do with Mideast policy should be a major cause of concern. Indeed, when someone like Hilary Mann Leverett -- a former ambassador to Egypt and onetime "terrorism fellow" at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (i.e. no pachouli-burning peacenik) -- says on national television that "There is a lot of fear and consternation that the advisers, in particular, that Hillary Clinton is bringing with her are going to make us long for the Bush days," one shouldn't expect the next four years to be all rainbows and unicorns.
If such a strategy succeeds in bringing Iran to the table, it is important that the United States and its allies set a timetable for negotiations. Otherwise, the Iranians may seek to delay until they achieve a nuclear weapons capability.
Fourth, so that Israel does not feel compelled to take unilateral action, the next president must credibly convince Jerusalem that the United States will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons capability.
Fifth, while military action against Iran is feasible, it must remain an option of last resort. If all other approaches fail, the new president would have to weigh the risks of a failure to impede Iran's nuclear program sufficiently against the risks of a military strike. The U.S. military is capable of launching a devastating strike on Iran's nuclear and military infrastructure -- probably with more decisive results than the Iranian leadership realizes.
An initial air campaign would probably last up to several weeks and would require vigilance for years to come. Military action would incur significant risks, including the possibility of U.S. and allied losses, wide-scale terrorist reprisals against Israel and other nations, and heightened unrest in the region.
Both to increase our leverage over Iran and to prepare for a military strike, if one were required, the next president will need to begin building up military assets in the region from day one.