The Obama administration’s approach toward Iran's nuclear ambitions has been a failure and must include a credible threat of using military force, independent experts told a Washington think-tank on Thursday.
“The primary goal of the sanctions is not to harm Iran’s economy, but to change the Iranian leadership’s mind about proceeding with a nuclear program,” said Orde Kittrie, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a law professor at Arizona State University.
“The sanctions thus far are arguably a failure in that regard,” he said.
After stonewalling a bipartisan sanctions bill in Congress for 18 months, in July, President Obama finally signed into law a measure that sought to impose a cutoff in the sale of refined petroleum products to Iran, long considered an economic “choke-point” by experts including Kittrie.
Since then, top administration officials have been trumpeting their success in getting foreign companies to cut off their ties to Iran in a series of congressional hearings.
But as Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told the FDD conference on Thursday, the State Department has only sanctioned one company out of dozens identified by the Congressional Research Service for their involvement in the Iranian petroleum sector.
“In fact, five companies — ENI of Italy, Total of France, Statoil of Norway, Royal Dutch Shell of Britain and the Netherlands, and INPEX of Japan — were given an official reprieve through a 'special rule' under the new comprehensive sanctions bill,” Kirk said.
“This “special rule” allows the administration to indefinitely delay investigation of companies, as long as the company has “pledged” to stop doing business with Iran.” Until now, however, there has been “no evidence” that any of the firms intend to keep their pledge, Kirk added.
Kirk said the United States had to work much harder at enforcing existing sanctions, while promoting human rights and helping the opposition Green Movement inside Iran.
“I believe the threat we face in Iran has a parallel to the threat we faced in the Soviet Union: a repressive dictatorship that denies its citizens basic human rights while bullying its neighbors, building nuclear weapons, and threatening doom and destruction on American allies,” Kirk said.
The United States was perfectly able to negotiate nuclear arms control deals with the Soviets, while simultaneously pressing Soviet leaders to release political dissidents. Kirk added: “In the end, we won the Cold War because we never lost the conviction of our own convictions.”
Mark Dubowitz, who has spearheaded FDD’s efforts to name and shame foreign oil companies investing in Iran, believes in sanctions but also sees their limits.
“It’s always good to do damage to your enemy,” he said. “But sanctions have never worked in isolation.”
Dubowitz and others argued that repeated warnings by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that military action against Iran would unleash “catastrophic” results have only given comfort to Iran’s leaders.
“The main red line for the Islamic Republic is the survival of the regime,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Nothing can stop them from acquiring a bomb if it doesn’t threaten the existence and survival of the regime. The Iranian government doesn’t give up under pressure,” Khalaji said.
Iran is happy to fight the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to fight Israel through proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza strip. But it doesn’t want to fight the United States or Israel on its own territory.
“The reason they are not willing to make a big change in their foreign policy or their nuclear policy is because they firmly believe that neither the United States or Israel are willing to take any military action against Iran,” Khalaji said.
Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a foreign policy analyst based in Brussels, said the U.S. insistence on taking a military option off the table was a huge mistake.
Policymakers should constantly question the utility and desirability of using force against Iran. “But to actually tell the Iranians publicly that whatever else you do, we are not going to do the one thing that would trigger a change of calculus in Tehran, is a terrible message to send,” he said.
Iran today can make three nuclear bombs with the 3,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium it now possesses, and continues to import materials to build a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States.
According to Uzi Rubin, a missile expert who is the father of Israel’s Arrow missile defense program, Iran now possesses a solid-fuel missile capable of reaching Luxembourg, “so most of Europe is already at threat.”
Iran’s strategic weapons programs include uranium enrichment, long-range missiles, and a program to launch satellites into orbit. When taken together, Iran’s intent is clear, Rubin argued.
“What do they want? It’s obvious. A nuclear ICBM,” he said.
Rubin says he has looked at a series of recent statements by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which the Iranian president claimed Iran needed to exercise power in order to “manage” the world. “That is superpower thinking,” Rubin argued.
From Ahmadinejad’s point of view, “there are only two superpowers in the world: the United States, and Iran. And I think he was polite in mentioning the United States,’ Rubin added.
While Iran frequently bluffs and lies about its capabilities, Rubin warned that real capabilities lay beneath all the bluster. “I am looking at the trend line,” he said. Iran’s strategic military programs “can be slowed, but not stopped.”
Uri Lubrani is a living legend among Iran analysts. As Israel’s de facto ambassador to Iran during the final years of the former shah’s reign, he was the only foreign diplomat to predict in writing the shah’s imminent downfall, several months before the demonstrations against his regime began.
“Sanctions are beginning to bite. And that is the good news,” the 83-year old Lubrani said. “But my feeling is, it’s not enough.”
Lubrani warned that Ahmadinejad was not “a clown,” “He is clever, sophisticated.”
The goal of the Iranian regime is not to defeat Israel, although they would like to do so. “This regime is out to challenge Western values,” Lubrani argued. “They consider themselves already as a small superpower.”
Author Joel Rosenberg, whose latest novel involves Iran and its end times ideology, asked Lubrani if he believed regime leaders such as Ahmadinejad truly believed in the 12th Imam, whose return they claim will usher in an era of Islamic domination over the entire world.
“Ahmadinejad really believes what he says,” Lubrani said. “When he was mayor of Tehran, he paved a road for this missing Imam to ride into Tehran when he would return to earth. So you have a totally irrational, obsessed kind of philosophy, which is now grabbing the hard core of the ayatollah’s regime in Tehran.”
Some Shiite Muslims believe they can speed up the return of the 12th Imam by provoking worldwide devastation. Ahmadinejad begins all of his public speeches, including those at the United Nations, with a prayer that his actions “hasten the return” of the 12th Imam.
“We have one big ally, and that’s the Iranian people,” Lubrani said. “The Iranian people are ripe, mature, able to do the job” of getting rid of the Tehran regime.
“We have got to give them heart, give them the feeling they have friends outside. This has not been done by the United States, and certainly not by Europe . . . You’ve got to help them.”
Lubrani said he had made many mistakes during his long career, which spans the lifetime of the current state of Israel.
“On the matter of Iran, with all possible humility, I have found I haven’t been wrong . . . My feeling is, there is a green movement. It’s mature. It’s ripe. It ought to be helped. And it’s going to do the job.”
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