At a panel on Capitol Hill yesterday, Contributing Experts Matthew Levitt and Walid Phares, along with Prof. Yonah Alexander and Dr. Milton Hoenig, discussed the range of options available to the U.S. and the West in dealing with Iran. I will post a more detailed summary of the discussion within the next week, but in the meantime, please review the excellent story by reporter Matt Korade in today's edition of Congressional Quarterly's Homeland Security. The story was written for subscribers, but CQ has generously agreed to my request to post the entire story as a service to our readers. I've reduced the line spacing from the original to save space.
Iran Analysts Look to Reframe the Debate
By Matt Korade, CQ Staff
To engage or confront Iran: That is the question on one of the most critical issues of the day — the Middle East nation’s nuclear program. But Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, told a Capitol Hill audience Tuesday that the question is being framed the wrong way. The two options, engagement or confrontation, are poles of a spectrum whose middle ground offers a number of alternatives, with sanctions one possibility, said Levitt, who was participating in a panel discussion of the outlook for U.S.-Iranian relations over the next decade. The discussion was part of a forum sponsored by the Counterterrorism Foundation, Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
Right now, however, sanctions are seen not as one tool, but the tool, a problem akin to “constantly hitting the sink with a hammer,” Levitt said. The main thrust of actions against Iran should be to paralyze its aggressive behavior, whether that be its meddling in Israeli-Palestinian affairs through the provision of funding, technical support and weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, its Quds force activities in Iraq, or its financing and providing arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, Levitt said. In fact, he said, such activities as Iran’s reliance on proxy groups reflect its vulnerabilities in the international balance. Iran’s support for Sunni groups, for example, is more an effort to make local conflicts part of a global strategy to further its objectives than a Shia attempt to become part of the Salafist-Islamist movement.
Walid Phares, a senior fellow with the Future of Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of “The Confrontation: Winning the War Against Future Jihad,” explained that the country’s activities in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan reflect its feeling of being contained on all sides, most recently by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan; although it has gained strength since the toppling of Iraq, Iran is being prevented from easily expanding its regional influence. The nuclear question will aid Iran’s ambitions in part by enabling it to keep its domestic affairs in order, its possession of the bomb helping to prevent the international community from getting involved in its internal crises, and in particular the numerous conflicts arising from reformists.
Understanding Iran’s primary concern of stabilizing its internal control over opposition groups is a key to recognizing what kinds of negotiating tactics to take and incentives to offer with the country, Levitt said. The United States also should consider taking additional actions against the Quds force, which in addition to involvement with terrorism is invested throughout the Iranian economy, as well as examining further options against the county’s banking, reinsurance and shipping industries.
Yonah Alexander, director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and co-author with nuclear physicist Milton Hoenig of “The New Iranian Leadership: Ahmadinejad, Terrorism, Nuclear Ambition, and the Middle East,” said there is a long list of Iranian activities to focus on, including theological and political radicalization, propaganda and psychological warfare, violations of human rights, economic problems, organized crime such as that involved with narco-trafficking, state-sponsored terrorism, WMD development and regional destabilization.
Hoenig added that Iran should be made to admit to its past nuclear-weapons development activities. While many in Washington viewed the latest National Intelligence Estimate as misleading because of its limited definition of a nuclear weapons program to the design of warheads and covert enrichment of fissile materials, at least the estimate identified that there was in fact such a nuclear weapons program, something the Iranian government has never admitted.
With Iran moving quickly toward its uranium enrichment goals — including the recent announcement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran was installing 6,000 centrifuges at its plant in Natanz — the panelists said it’s time for the United States and its allies to try a new approach.
Hoenig said one option proposed recently by Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of State for political affairs; William Luers, a former ambassador; and Jim Walsh, a former director of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, would allow Iran to pursue uranium-enrichment activities as part of a multinational, jointly managed effort. Although Ahmadinejad himself proposed a similar multilateral solution in the past, it was difficult to see how such a plan could be implemented while Iran continues international hostilities and remains unwilling to account for its past nuclear weapons program.
Whatever course the United States and international community takes, it is important to realize that engaging Iran for the sake of engaging won’t bear fruit, Levitt said. “Iran must be made to understand that violent tactics and political engagement can’t go together,” he said.