Avoiding Brinksmanship with Iran

As the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaches, the world continues to face a litany of nuclear concerns. There is the failure to safeguard all the nuclear material lying loose around the globe. And proponents of nuclear power have gained ground as a result of the current energy crisis.

But the radioactive rhetoric printed on newspaper opinion pages and proclaimed from would-be presidential podiums puts Iran at the top of the nuclear list.

“Bomb, Bomb Iran,” sang John McCain – the man running for President of the United States on a record of foreign policy experience, military know-how, and gravitas – to the tune of The Beach Boys hit “Barbara Ann.” More recently, Benny Morris, an Israeli historian writing in The New York Times, opined that “Israel’s own nuclear arsenal” could be “the only means available that will actually destroy the Iranian nuclear project,” laying out a new argument for the central fallacy of the Cold War – winnable nuclear war – long thought to be in the ash bin of history.

This is industrial strength saber-rattling, and it could not come at a worse time.

Testing, Testing: One, Two, Three

In early July, Iran test-fired long-range missiles. The response from Israel and the United States was swift and strong, even as Tehran maintained that its nuclear program was for civilian purposes. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, “The Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian ballistic missile program must be of grave concern to the entire international community.” Gordon D. Johndroe, the deputy White House press secretary, urged Iran’s leaders to renounce further missile tests and “stop the development of ballistic missiles which could be used as a delivery vehicle for a potential nuclear weapon immediately.”

How soon a “potential nuclear weapon” could be delivered is anyone’s guess. But some experts opted to look beyond the dramatic pictures and strong words to assess what Iran actually did and why. Charles Vick, an expert at GlobalSecurity.org, reviewed test footage, noting that most of the nine missiles fired were old and no longer in production. He concluded that the Iranians – while surely interested in a show of force – were also clearing out old inventory.

The White House seemed to take Iranian claims that they had extended the range of their missiles to 2,000 kilometers at face value, perhaps because it strengthened arguments for a key pillar of President Bush’s legacy – ballistic missile defense. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the Czech Republic signing agreements to base U.S. missile interceptors in Europe at the time of the test, said “The tests are more evidence that the world needs the U.S. missile defense system.”

Scientists and Iran experts equally doubt Tehran’s claims about the missiles range, carrying capacity, and accuracy. David Wright, a physicist and co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program, who reviewed the test carefully, notes that “Iran frequently exaggerates the capability of its missiles, and it appears it is continuing that tradition with this week’s tests.”

Careful investigation reveals more than mere exaggeration. Early images released by Iranian news services were doctored to make the tests look more successful. Agence France-Presse and many other news outlets published front-page pictures showing four missiles. AFP later retracted its four-missile version, saying that the image was “apparently digitally altered” by Iranian state media. The fourth missile “has apparently been added in digital retouch to cover a grounded missile that may have failed during the test.” News of the doctored photos, which received broad coverage in the West, is unlikely to have reached the Iranian people. For all of these reasons, Dana Priest, the Washington Post investigative reporter, asserts that the tests were aimed at their own population “perhaps as a way to show they are strong before entering into talks with the evil one – the U.S. (which might signal weakness to the more hard-line crowd).”

Talking, Taking: Is Anyone Listening?

Despite the tests, the United States sent William Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, to meetings with Iran and France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and China. These meetings were trumpeted as the highest-level sessions between Washington and Tehran since before President George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001. But Undersecretary Burns’ presence did not signal that these talks were permanently higher on the U.S. agenda, because his participation was described as a “one time deal.”

Negotiations focused on a “freeze-for-freeze” deal. Iran would “freeze” by not adding to its nuclear program and the six parties to the negotiations would “freeze” by not seeking a new round of international sanctions for six weeks, a move which would pave the way for formal negotiations. Iran demurred, continuing to maintain that its highly enriched uranium program is for nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Iranian negotiators did not answer yes or no, and now the talks are postponed for another two weeks. The “freeze for freeze” was not new. It was first put on the table last year. What was new at these talks was the presence of Burns and the recent test.

Meanwhile, Iran is not the only country with the intent or capability to pursue nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency asserts that 20-30 countries have the wherewithal. We can’t offer freeze-for-freeze deals to all of them, so there must be some other tools in the tool box.

What’s Next?

Meanwhile on the campaign trail, candidates are rehashing their long-held positions. Democratic contender Barack Obama has repeatedly said he would engage in “tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions.” But, at the same time he told supporters that Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent a “serious threat to the United States, to our ally Israel and to international security.” When not adapting popular song lyrics, Republican hopeful John McCain calls an Iran with nuclear weapons an “unacceptable risk” to regional and global stability, and has repeatedly asserted that there is “only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear armed Iran.”

Neither candidate has addressed the dangerous game of brinksmanship now being played by leaders in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington. There is a course toward security for all three nations and the region. Bold alternatives to brinksmanship begin with the recognition that Washington’s policy of quietly green-lighting Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program on the one hand while thwarting Iran’s still-unrealized nuclear ambitions on the other has undermined its ability to offer acceptable carrots or sticks. A series of interlocking confidence-building measures that support steady and careful negotiations marked by mutual compromise does not grab headlines the way fear-mongering and hyperbole do. But, before we head into a mess of nuclear proportions, it is well worth an honest try.