Leverage Iran and Talk All the Issues

The soon to start second round of Iraq war negotiations with Iran must address broader regional issues and the US had better do a better job of leveraging those talks because words alone will accomplish little.

Iran has plenty of American and Iraqi blood on its hands. In addition to having a robust ballistic missile arsenal with chemical and biological warheads, Iran is racing to develop nuclear weapons.  It sponsors Hezbollah, the world’s largest terrorist organization, and recently enlisted Hamas, the Palestinian terror group now controlling the Gaza Strip next to Israel. Iran promises to “wipe [Israel] off the map” and is supplying arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

On May 28, Iran and the US met in Baghdad for their first official meeting in 27 years.  At that meeting, representatives agreed that a secure and stable Iraq is a worthy goal.  A second round of talks as early as this week is welcomed by Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman, who cautioned that if Tehran shares the goal for strategic stability in Iraq “they’re certainly going about it in an odd way.”

Iran fuels Iraqi sectarian violence by supplying militias and sending special forces to coordinate anti-coalition operations.  Recently, the US military in Iraq captured Ali Musa Dagdug, a Lebanese-born Hezbollah special forces commander.  Dagdug told officials that Tehran recruited him to advise, train and equip Iraqi insurgents.  US forces have captured and or killed numerous Iranian agents and the Pentagon reports Iranian weapons have killed hundreds of Americans.

Iran seeks influence across the Middle East.  Recently, Israel gave the United Nations satellite photos proving Iran’s involvement in rearming Hezbollah in Lebanon.  

When Israel and much of the West cut all assistance to the Hamas government following its mini civil war with Fatah, Iran immediately stepped in to give Hamas more than $300 million and a variety of weapons.   An Arab political analyst interjected, “What the Iranian ayatollahs are up to is to create a mix of a mini Islamic republic and a Hezbollah in Gaza.”

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently stated that Tehran is aware that “substantial” numbers of weapons are flowing from Iran to the Taliban in Afghanistan.  

These client-building actions are consistent with Tehran’s ambition to spread its Islamic Revolution.  That’s why renewed Iraq-only talks are geopolitically insufficient.  The US must either negotiate a broader swath of interlocking issues with Iran or walk away from the table.  

The alternative to walking away is engagement, hoping Iraq-only negotiations might sideline the radicals and bolster the pragmatists.  Ray Takeyh with the Council on Foreign Relations endorses this view labeling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “canny manipulator trying to rouse public indignation in a chaotic neighborhood.”  He believes that Iran only seeks “acknowledgment of its status and influence” as a regional power.  

Whether Ahmadinjad is a “canny manipulator” or a messianist seeking to usher in a new world order is irrelevant.   The US has a poor track record divining the course of Mideast dictators and he’s dangerous.  The pragmatists may come to the rescue but time is not on our side.  

Before negotiating with the Iranians, the US must recognize Iran’s actions for what they are — hegemonic confrontation intended to take over the region and bully the West.  Our response to date is an example of the idiom “Can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Who doesn’t believe that negotiations with Iran over Iraq or any other issue would be different if Ahmadinejad already had atomic weapons?
In May, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency alerted the world that Iran was operating 1,312 uranium enriching centrifuges with another 656 being assembled.  The IAEA admits, “It is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge [on enrichment]” and Iran will have as many as 8,000 centrifuges operating by the end of 2007 and could have a nuclear weapon in three to eight years. Predictably, Ahmadinejad asserted “If Iran’s right to nuclear technology is confirmed, all nations of the world will gather under Iran’s political banner.  Enemies of Islamic Iran know this, and for this reason they are mobilized.”

Only a military strike or a radical change in government could scuttle Iran’s nuclear efforts.  It’s unlikely the atomic mullahs will voluntarily surrender their efforts because that would mean acceptance of the prevailing world order and giving up any hopes for regional or global power.  

Confrontation with the West on these issues helps the regime to shore up domestic support by diverting the people’s attention from the dismal situation at home. Iran suffers from over 10 percent unemployment, an average inflation rate of 14 percent for each of the past five years and a severe housing shortage.  Juxtapose these facts with a very young population that is primarily urban and surprisingly pro-West.

So what leverage does the US have over Iran?  More than we have used.  Recently, we sent warships to maneuver off Iran’s coast, took steps with the UN to broaden sanctions, and are holding five Iranian commandos in Iraq. Unfortunately, the mullahs are unfazed because they sense our resolve in Iraq is weakening and the US Congress could pull the plug on our efforts there.  

The US needs meaningful and comprehensive leverage before sitting down to negotiate with Iran. Areas of Iranian vulnerability include the fact that Iran has a fragile economy. We could cut off its access to gasoline — about half of which is imported. We could deny access to supplies that maintain its oil industry, which accounts for half of the regime’s revenues.  We could and should canvas the big companies doing business with both Iran and US and offer them a Hobson’s choice.

We should arm our allies.  The State and Defense Departments have asked Congress to approve sales of military hardware such as antimissile interceptors to Persian Gulf allies in order to minimize Iranian intimidation and influence.  

There are anti-Iranian elements willing to play a destabilizing role such as Jundullah, a Pakistani militant group, which attacks the Iranian military.  Half of Iran’s population is non-Persian. This makes the country potentially as volatile as Iraq.

Of course, there are military options if leverage fails.  Iran’s sole gasoline refinery is a prime target.  Its three primary nuclear sites could easily be set-back years with air delivered bunker busting bombs.  

Iran would like to buy time to expand its Islamic Revolution and become a nuclear power. The US must engage in talks and negotiate issues but only after the situation has been leveraged for success.