This past weekend, with news that the U.S. and Iran may be planning direct talks soon to address the nuclear standoff, there were swift reactions by some to try to kill the initiative. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren warned that Iran should not be “rewarded” with direct talks, and Senator Lindsey Graham–who has pledged the U.S. will join Israel if they choose to bomb Iran–ominously said “the time for talking is over.”
For some, it seems that negotiations with Iran that could resolve the nuclear impasse are a bigger danger than Iran’s nuclear program.
Rolf Ekéus, who headed the UN team charged with eliminating Iraqi WMD infrastructure from 1991 to 1997, makes a compelling case in Foreign Affairs that the international community is indeed headed down the same path with Iran that we took with Iraq. The piece, co-written with Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, presents a timeline in which a U.S. policy aimed at regime change prevented sanctions from being removed and made war inevitable:
- In 1991, after the Gulf War, the UN Security Council requires Iraq to destroy all WMD material and accept international inspections.
- From 1991 to 1997, Iraq procedes with disarmament in order to get the international community to honor its end of the deal: to lift UN financial and trade embargoes once Iraq has complied.
- By 1997, Iraq completes disarmament and the UN has a monitoring system in place. There are calls in the Security Council to begin lifting the sanctions.
- But that spring, Secretary of State Madeline Albright announces the U.S. will not lift the sanctions until Saddam is removed.
- By the end of 1998, Congress passes the Iraq Liberation Act which makes regime change the official U.S. policy towards Iraq. President Clinton signs the bill into law.
- In 1998, with no chance of getting sanctions lifted through cooperation, Saddam obstructs and finally kicks out inspectors after a U.S.-British bombing campaign.
- Citing the Iraq Liberation Act and allegations of Iraqi WMD programs and capabilities, Congress authorizes war with Iraq and the U.S. invades in 2003.
Fast forward to ten years later, and we are hearing demands that negotiations be eschewed, sanctions remain indefinitely, and that the U.S. or Israel should begin preventive military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities that are currently under IAEA inspection.
Ekéus and Braut-Hegghammer write that “calling for war while intensifying pressure on Iran, without also clearly defining steps Tehran could take to defuse the tension, removes any incentives for Iran to change its behavior.”
The Obama Administration has stated, however, that sanctions can be lifted in exchange for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program. Secretary Clinton recently said with regard to Iran’s economic difficulties, “the sanctions have had an impact as well, but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian government were willing to work with the P5+1 and the rest of the international community in a sincere manner.”
The question is: will we get to the table and have the political power to leverage the sanctions for Iranian concessions?
Lindsey Graham and his allies will not let that happen. For some, this is not about getting a deal that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it is about the misguided goal of imposing regime change from the outside. And blocking talks while holding the sanctions in place may be their best tool to prevent a peaceful solution and bring us closer to a war they have always seen as inevitable.