By Jim Lobe
Four U.S. non-proliferation specialists are urging the Obama administration to impose tougher economic sanctions against Iran and issue more explicit threats to destroy its nuclear programme by military means.
In a 155-page report, the specialists, who were joined by the head of a right-wing pro-Israel lobby group, the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD), said Washington should declare its intent to institute a “de facto international embargo on all investments in, and trade with” Iran, excepting food and medicine, if it does not freeze its nuclear-related work.
The calls come amidst speculation over a critical meeting between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia – plus Germany (P5+1), which have met over the last two months in an apparent effort to unify their positions before meeting with Iran. That meeting has not yet been scheduled, but most observers believe it will take place at the end of the month.
The report, “U.S. Nonproliferation Strategy for the Changing Middle East,” also said Washington should “increase Iranian isolation, including through regime change in Syria” and “undertake…overt preparations for the use of warplanes and/or missiles to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities with high explosives”.
Only if Tehran provided “meaningful concessions”, among them suspending all uranium enrichment and heavy water-related projects, closing the underground enrichment facility at Fordow, and accepting a highly intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections regime – should sanctions relief be considered, said the report, which was co-authored by FDD’s president, Mark Dubowitz, and David Albright, a physicist who heads the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
In that respect, the recommendations appeared to reflect more the position held by Israel than that of the Obama administration, which has suggested that it will not necessarily insist on a total suspension of uranium enrichment – a demand that Iran has consistently rejected and which many Iran specialists believe is a deal-killer – as a condition for possible sanctions relief.
“The report does not offer a realistic formula for negotiating a satisfactory agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear programme,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association (ACA) and a former top State Department analyst on proliferation issues. “It would require Iran to capitulate on virtually all fronts.”
“Some of the measures it suggests would be likely to disrupt P5+1 unity….and the maximalist requirements it cites for an agreement could convince Tehran that the U.S. objective is regime change, rather than full compliance with its obligations to the IAEA,” he noted.
In at least one respect, however, the report departed from Israel’s views. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, warned in September that Tehran could reach what the report called the “critical capability” to quickly build a bomb without detection as early as this spring. The reported concluded that mid-2014 was more likely, although it noted an earlier date was also possible.
“The focal point wasn’t to say, ‘Saddle up, we’re going to war in six months,’” said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and a co-chair of one of the five task forces that contributed to the report. “This was a more careful assessment of how much time we had, and it allows the sort of (sanctions) pressure, which has been mounting, to have more impact.”
Iranian officials have suggested over the last several months that they are willing to make major concessions, including halting their enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent, transferring a substantial portion of their 20-percent enriched stockpile out of the country, and accepting enhanced IAEA inspections, provided they receive major sanctions relief in exchange. But they have also insisted that their right to enrichment of up to five percent is nonnegotiable.
The P5+1 appear divided over how much sanctions relief to offer and in what sequence. Recent reports indicate that Washington and Paris are pressing to require Iran to implement all of these measures, as well as closing Fordow and clearing up all questions raised by the IAEA regarding alleged military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, before any major easing of sanctions can happen.
The new report, which came out of a series of “roundtables” that included presentations by senior administration officials, clearly favours an even tougher stance.
It explicitly endorsed a letter – reportedly drafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – to Obama signed by 73 U.S. senators last month that warned, “There should be absolutely no diminution of pressure on the Iranians until the totality of their nuclear problem has been addressed.” The report called for intensified sanctions and more explicit military threats by the administration.
It also called for stepping up covert action against Tehran’s nuclear and missile programmes and exerting greater pressure on China, Hong Kong, Turkey, and the Gulf kingdoms to halt all commerce with Iran.
While the report covered other non-proliferation issues in the Middle East and North Africa, it skipped lightly over Israel, the region’s only nuclear power, noting merely that the Jewish state will consider disarmament initiatives only after all its neighbours make peace with it.
The dearth of attention to Israel, which, unlike Iran, is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was described by Thielmann as “conspicuous” given the intended scope of the report.
The report also said Washington should threaten the Islamist-led government in Cairo with tough sanctions if it takes steps to gain nuclear capability.
That the report’s recommendations coincided closely with Israel’s positions may have been due in part to the heavy involvement in the project by staff members from both FDD, which has been a leading proponent of “economic warfare” against Iran, and the Dershowitz Group, a media relations firm with FDD shares office space and reportedly cooperates closely.
Several Dershowitz account executives included in the report’s acknowledgments have previously been associated with Hasbara Fellowships, a group set up by the right-wing, Israel-based Aish HaTorah International, to counter alleged anti-Israel sentiment at U.S. universities. IPS inquiries into the project’s sources of funding went unanswered.
The endorsement by Albright, who is frequently cited by mainstream U.S. media as an expert on the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, of the report’s policy-oriented recommendations, such as making a military attack on Iran more credible, came as a surprise to some proliferation experts, including two who participated in the roundtables but asked to remain anonymous because of the off-the-record nature of the proceedings.
“His expertise is a technical one, but this is mostly a political paper,” noted one expert. “This covers areas that go far beyond his expertise.”