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May 4, 2009

Lieberman: “We are now approaching a Defining Moment in US-Iran History” (Updated)

“[It] is clear that we are now approaching a defining moment in [US-Iran] history and in the relationship between the international community, including especially the United States, and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran—a defining moment in which both sides must make big decisions, whose consequences will carry far into the future,” Senator Joseph Lieberman said at the American Enterprise Institute’s conference on Iran last week.
“In this regard, Secretary Clinton said last week that the Obama administration will approach its new engagement with Iran with eyes wide open and under no illusions. That’s exactly the right way to do it.”
Lieberman spoke about a Senate bill he introduced Tuesday giving the President expanded authority to crack down on companies that export gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. “I have spoken to [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and he is supportive, he added.”
Following Lieberman’s speech, a panel with AEI scholars Michael Rubin and Fred Kagan and Brookings scholar Kenneth Pollack discussed US options on Iran.
In contrast to Lieberman’s emphasis on sanctions, the panelists emphasized many of the costs associated with additional sanctions and other punitive measures. “Look, we need to be honest about this: Iranians are going to die if we impose additional sanctions,” Kagan said in a realistic tone.Pollack stressed the great opportunity provided by engagement. “Some Iranian elites and the Iranian people want relations with the US. I think we should really give [engagement] a good shot. We need to develop concrete steps that we can ask the Iranians to do to build confidence,” he added.
“First, we should reach out to the Iranian people to ask if their government serves their interest. Second, we can influence the Iranian government through reaching out to the people, because the government cares about what its people think, in some way.” Pollack added, “Third, the US cannot change its relationship with Iran unilaterally…if we go forward with multilateral diplomacy, we have more support for other measures.”
The neoconservatives on the panel emphasized the disadvantages of a military attack.
“We should not hand Ahmadinejad the nationalist card through a military attack,” Rubin said in ruling out military intervention. “In the case of a military strike on Iran,” Rubin warned, “people would rally around the flag.” Rubin had argued as recently as 2007 that the US needed to take on Iran to achieve victory in Iraq.
“We have a fundamental choice: are we ready to use force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons?” Kagan asked. Questioning the strategic effectiveness of such an attack, he followed, “What will you do after a military strike? How will you use it to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons?”
Rubin said it was unrealistic to expect a complete halt to Iran’s nuclear activities regardless of U.S. policy. He quoted Reformist Presidential candidate MirHossein Mousavi’s first news conference saying that Iran cannot retreat on the nuclear issue. “US-Iran relations should not to be tied to the nuclear issue,” Rubin quoted Mousavi as saying.
Pollack concluded the panel saying, “Iran needs to be a top priority for the Obama administration always, so we don’t find out the implications of a nuclear Iran after the fact.”
Though this panel of Iran conservatives did not produce unanimous support for diplomacy, the neoconservatives’ retreat from military options is surprising. The Obama Administration’s continued support of robust diplomacy appears to have caused a paradigm shift in the Washington debate on Iran.
Update: I am sorry, it appears that I inadvertently put the phrase “take on Iran” above in quotations  in this piece. Fixed.

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