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J Street on Iran

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According to their website, J Street is “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement…founded to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israel conflicts peacefully and diplomatically.” The side also mentions supporting a “new direction for American policy in the Middle East and a broad public and policy debate about the U.S. role in the region.”  You can read more about J Street here.

Below is a summary of their suggestions for a new direction in the US’s Iran policy:


The failures of US policy towards Iran:

Current US Policy towards Iran consists of supporting sanctions and out-sourcing diplomacy, and publicly reserving the right to military action, with the intention of stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and Iranian interference in Iraq.

A belligerent and possibly nuclear Iran is a serious threat to regional stability, American troops stationed in Iraq, and to our ally Israel, but current US policy fails to adequately address the Iranian threat.

• Current US Policy strengthens Iranian hardliners. The Iraq misadventure has already significantly enhanced Iran’s regional standing. The saber rattling by Bush, Cheney and the neocons allows Ahmadinejad to rally Iranians around the flag and to distract attention from his failing economic policies. The divisions within Iranian politics are real – both between ideological hard-liners and more pragmatic conservatives and between the overall conservative ‘principalist’ camp and reformers. More of the same Bush policies will only help Ahmadinejad score a victory in the upcoming Iranian Presidential elections next year.

• Current US policy has not stopped Iran’s nuclear program. During the Bush years, Iran has progressed significantly towards mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, a key component for producing weapon grade nuclear material. And Iran doesn’t see any reason to stop pursuing enrichment of weapons grade nuclear material – quite the opposite. Current US policy is that we should not talk to Iran until they stop enriching weapons grade nuclear material, which they currently claim to be doing. But the closer Iran gets to the nuclear threshold by manufacturing enough weapons grade material for a bomb, the less leverage the US and International Community will have to stop Iran from crossing that threshold. This further illustrates the current weakness of sanctions as a stand-alone policy. Without a US effort at diplomatic engagement to show the Iranians the benefits of halting their nuclear weapons program, the Iranian leadership remains convinced that pursuing nuclear weapons capability is their best option.

• Current US policy towards Iran is not advancing a political solution in Iraq. America needs to create the conditions for political stability, predictability and reconciliation in Iraq in order to redeploy responsibly from that country. Bush and the neocons handed Iran substantial influence in Iraq when they invaded – Iraq’s leading Shi’a factions spent their years in exile in or have close ties to Iran (ISCI, JAM, Fadila). US efforts to build a regional plan for Iraq’s stability are plagued by suspicion and hostility to the US carried over from other tensions in the region, most notably with Iran. Tough direct diplomacy with Iran can contribute to a political process that advances stability in Iraq and shapes a more reasonable environment for bringing our troops home. A New Diplomatic Offensive should be pursued and an Iraq International Support Group established, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group – and that requires a sincere attempt at hard bargaining with Iran.

• Current US policy makes Israel less, not more secure. The US-Iran standoff has encouraged more assertive Iranian intervention on Israel’s doorstep – in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories – with material support for Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. As Iran’s nuclear weapons enrichment program advances and the US shows no appetite for serious diplomatic engagement, Israel’s options become more limited and less attractive. Israel could be forced, in the near future, to decide between allowing Iran to develop nuclear capability and face cold-war style nuclear confrontation with Iran or attacking Iranian nuclear facilities itself and bearing the brunt of the Iranian supported reprisals against its own citizens and country. For both Israel’s and America’s sake, the US must develop a coherent policy to halt Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon through renewed diplomatic engagement on all issues of mutual concern.

• Current US policy of containment is not smart. The US is making no real effort to reduce Iranian leverage at the negotiating table – in fact, current US obstructionism in the face of Israel-Syria peace talks and efforts at political reconciliation in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories are increasing Iranian regional influence and leverage. A smart containment policy would aim to reduce Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories through (1) engagement with Syria to give them options other than Iranian collusion, possibly through peace with Israel, (2) supporting Lebanese efforts towards political reconciliation and pull Hezbollah into domestic arrangement that would make it harder for Hezbollah to support Iranian regional ambitions, and (3) supporting Saudi and Egyptian efforts to bring Hamas into a power-sharing agreement with Fatah in the Palestinian territories and, similarly to Hezbollah, pull Hamas out of Iran’s orbit of regional influence. This containment policy, coupled with multilateral sanctions, should become US policy if a diplomatic offensive were to fail.

Military action against Iran won’t work:

While current US policy is not working, we believe military action against Iran is a terrible option for the US, regional stability, and for Israel.

First of all, it is not clear that air strikes could actually cripple the Iranian nuclear program more than setting it back a few years – if a weapons program actually exists (per the 2007 NIE – link to PDF of report). If anything, it will further empower Iranian hardliners who believe the only way to safeguard their country would be to accelerate their pursuit of nuclear capability.

We cannot ignore how high the cost of an attack would be. American military strikes against Iran put our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in the crosshairs of Iranian reprisals and will likely throw our ally Israel into bloody conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which receive support from Iran. Oil prices would sky rocket with world wide economic repercussions. Our Gulf allies would likely experience significant blowback from their citizens.

What should we do about Iran?

“Real Engagement and Smart Containment”

First, try real engagement. If that doesn’t work, get smart about containment.

The US has not yet tried real diplomatic engagement with Iran. Renewed diplomatic engagement should include direct high-level negotiations with Iran to address all issues of mutual concern, covering, in addition to the nuclear issue, ending Iranian opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process and its support to groups using violence against the US and Israel in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. The informal negotiating proposal of 2003 (PDF) – a product of Swiss-Iranian dialogue – conveyed to the US via Swiss officials provides on example of what the diplomatic option might look like.

If the diplomatic offensive were to fail, the US could then pursue a policy of smarter and more effective containment coupled with strong, multilateral sanctions. Following a real attempt at diplomacy, the US would be in a much better position to encourage the international community to endorse and enforce a tough regimen of sanctions and other containment measures against Iran. A smart containment policy would include (1) engagement with Syria to give them options other than Iranian collusion, possibly through peace with Israel, (2) supporting Lebanese efforts towards political reconciliation and make it harder for Iran to install a Lebanese government supportive of Iranian regional ambitions, and (3) supporting Saudi and Egyptian efforts to bring Hamas into a power-sharing agreement with Fatah in the Palestinian territories.

Irancove @ July 14, 2008

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