A middle way on Iran

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
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It’s been nearly a year since Secretary of State Clinton promised “crippling sanctions” on Iran. The U.S. House has passed the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), and the Senate has passed similar legislation, but congressional leaders have failed to start a reconciliation process. President Obama—enmeshed in domestic policy debates—has done little to hasten the congressional process.

And so Iran’s enrichment continues. On Feb. 18, the New York Times reported that not only did Iran lie about previous enrichment efforts, but it continues to breach international agreements by playing hide and seek with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

Is a military strike by the United States or Israel now the only means to prevent a nuclear Iran? The editorials of John Bolton suggest so, but as an optimist, I’m still searching for a middle way.

One such proposal comes from Illinois’ 9th district—not from Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a seeming opponent of American military strength and a friend of J Street, but from her Republican opponent, Joel Pollak.

Joel has coined the NEDA Proposal, an acronym for: No tolerance for a nuclear Iran; Extend pre-emptive support to Israel; Develop human rights sanctions; and Assist democracy. The proposal was originally released to the Jerusalem Post and can be read in full here.

The first two points utilize game theoretical tactics employed during the Cold War—by committing to military action, we forced the Soviets to withdraw in many instances. Similarly, in the “N” of NEDA, Joel suggests we back UN Security Council resolutions with military support. This will add teeth to an otherwise toothless organization.

The last two points recognize the growing civil discontent in Iran as opportunity—an opportunity for the reform of Iran’s internally impressive regime and also as an opportunity to usher in a peaceful regime. Iranian-Americans and other sympathizers have called for fair elections followed by a just regime, but the American government did little to support Iranian dissidents.

Iranian enrichment must be stopped. Joel’s plan seems like a viable option that combines non-military measures with the threat of military action. When I e-mailed Joel a few questions on NEDA, he offered the following responses, and he promised to continue to develop the plan in the future weeks.

Stephen Richer: Your plan calls for human rights sanctions—why will these sanctions move faster than the current economic sanctions on the docket?

Joel Pollak: It is not clear that economic sanctions will dissuade Iran from pursuing military and political objectives that have little to do with economic motives. The regime may also believe–following the example of North Korea–that it can extract rents from the rest of the world once it succeeds in becoming a nuclear power. It may also have learned from Pakistan that post-nuclear economic sanctions can be removed when the rest of the world finds it politically necessary or convenient. However, tying sanctions to human rights progress is likely to be more effective, because these sanctions can remain in place whether Iran is a nuclear power or not, and regardless of other external circumstances. One of the main reasons Iran wants nuclear weapons is so that the regime can control its domestic opponents (which include, at some point or another, every Iranian citizen). If those domestic opponents have leverage via international sanctions regardless of Iran’s nuclear advances, the regime may begin to think twice about going nuclear, because nuclear weapons will not buy political security. Ultimately, the problem in Iran is the nature of the regime itself. Sanctions that are tied solely to Iran’s nuclear program, without considering human rights and democracy, fail to address the underlying structural, political issue, which is going to continue to lead Iran into constant confrontation with the west whether or not it has nuclear weapons.

SR: You say that we “must deny the Iranian government any semblance of legitimacy in international forums.” What does this mean exactly? Does it mean we walk out of all Iranian speeches at the U.N.? Do we boycott any future Olympics games that Iran is invited to (as they were in 2008)? How does this mesh with the current administration’s approach?

JP: It means, first and foremost, that we stop tolerating Iranian misbehavior in the UN. There is no way that Iran should be vice-chair of the U.N. Disarmament Commission, for example. The U.S. should immediately refuse to participate in, or to give money to, any international institution that allows itself to be turned into a sham in that manner. Likewise the UN Human Rights Council, which we should leave if Iran succeeds in winning a seat (we should not have participated anyway, but that is another issue). We should not boycott the Olympics, but rather insist that the Olympics boycott Iran if the regime persists in refusing to compete against Israeli athletes.

SR: How do we preemptively signal our support for an Israeli missile strike? From what governmental body does this emanate? The White House seems unlikely to make such a proclamation?

JP: The White House must do so–but Congress can lead the way with a strong resolution in favor of such a declaration. If it dawdles, the White House must be confronted by congressional leaders of both parties, resolution in hand. Congress can also appropriate funding to joint military operations that are explicitly aimed at supporting Israel’s capacity to launch a pre-emptive strike should the need arise.

SR: What is the breaking point? When do we know Iran has gone too far? As I alluded to above, John Bolton thinks we’ve already passed this point.

JP: Iran went too far in 1979. It replaced a monarchy with a religious junta, instead of the democracy its leaders claim it to be (even as they kill dissidents and steal elections). We must realize that it is the totalitarian nature of the regime that prods it towards constant war with “Satans” both great and small. External confrontation reinforces internal control. Only internal political change–or external military defeat–will undo the Iranian threat. The former is preferable to the latter, but will not happen without a “military option” from outside that threatens the regime with destruction.

Stephen Richer is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.