Washington DC – “In keeping the position that that Iranian nuclear capability is unacceptable, we in effect are failing to put in place the kind of instruments that actually discourage them from crossing that threshold,” said Ambassador James Dobbins, a former American diplomat and State Department official now based at the RAND Corporation, speaking at a Congressional briefing last week.
Dobbins warned against a U.S. approach to the Iranian dispute favored by many in Congress demanding Iran end all nuclear enrichment. Instead, he said, the U.S. should focus on securing inspections and transparency mechanisms to ensure Iran’s enrichment program is purely for civilian use.
“Our focus should be, as I think it is in the Administration, to make sure they won’t go any further and they halted where they are, and then we can bring them back to full compliance with the NPT,” Dobbins said.
Dobbins and other experts have argued that the “zero enrichment” approach is not just unnecessary to achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, but could make that goal impossible by derailing negotiations.
Administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have indicated the U.S. would be prepared to accept an Iranian right to enrichment once concerns about weaponization are addressed and vigorous inspections are implemented. But pressure from Congress for a “zero enrichment” ultimatum has threatened to impede such an solution.
Dobbins also cautioned against the use of military threats as part of a coercive diplomatic effort. “To be candid, coercive diplomacy has a poor record” he said, noting that the cases of Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan all ended in war.
He suggested that Israeli threats to take military action were not in fact aimed at Tehran. “The Israelis are quite cognizant that threats have little or no impact on Iran—they are in fact not intended to have impact on Iran.”
Instead, Dobbins said, such threats are “designed to influence American, European, Chinese and Russian behavior, and everybody who wants a peaceful Middle East and continued access to the oil.” The specter of war, he said, was aimed at “producing stronger coalition and greater sanctions [against Iran].”
“And I have to say, it has been fairly a successful policy instrument in this sense”
But an attack by the U.S. or Israel would have significant blowback, Dobbins argued. “Our own view is that an Iran that has received an unprovoked attack would be more difficult to contain, in the sense of containing its influence, than even an Iran that had nuclear weapons.”
Were Iran to retaliate militarily, Dobbins said, this would only lead to increased international pressure and Iran’s further isolation.
“But what if they react with some degree of moderation? Take it to the Security Council? Begin to isolate us instead of themselves, begin to undermine international coalition and sanctions?”
“I think an unprovoked attack from Israel and United states might well produce that kind of response and that could be very dangerous in terms of facilitating long term Iranian access to nuclear weapon.”