US policy change too late
The Bush administration is widely commended for what appears to be a major shift in policy on talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs sat down with the EU's High Representative and Iran's chief negotiator - the highest-level meeting between the United States and Iran since the 1979 revolution that established the Islamic Republic.
The US has realized that it must sit down at the negotiation table to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. The costs incurred on the regime by economic sanctions alone are too small when compared to what Iran can achieve with the threat of a nuclear bomb. Moreover, with the military stretched thin, there is little American desire for another war and the unpredictable consequences it would bring.
The new proposal helps Iran
Iran likely regards the November-January timeframe - i.e. after US-presidential elections and before the inauguration of the next President - as the time of maximum danger for an American or Israeli air attack against its nuclear facilities.
Hence it would be an Iranian coup if it could effectively tie U.S. hands by sitting down at the negotiating table and appearing to negotiate with the Americans. That's the risk of the so-called "freeze-for-freeze" proposal, whereby Iran agrees to abstain from adding to its uranium enrichment program while the five Security Council members and Germany would seek no new sanctions for six weeks. After a phase of pre-negotiations, formal negotiations would take place.
The "freeze-for-freeze" offer does not prohibit Iran from acquiring technology, but restricts the government from adding to its existing capabilities. Thus while Iran would not actually enrich uranium during negotiations, it would be still able to make progress on its program. And with a greater number of centrifuges at its disposal it will move closer to have a bomb-making capability.
Tough choices for next US President
Aware of Iran's tactics, the US is asking Iran to terminate the stage of pre-negotiations within two weeks to pave the way for formal negotiations well before October. However, with the postures of Germany, Russia and China - these states want to give Iran more time to reflect upon last weekend's meeting - Ahmadinejad is in a strong position.
The next US President will therefore have to make the following decision: (a) Accept that Iran attains a nuclear weapons capability, (b) pay a greater price to Iran for giving up its ambitions or (c) carry out a military strike. Option (b) is obviously the preferred option, but it may not be pleasant. Russia will drive a hard bargain for its support, which is by no means a foregone conclusion. It could also mean that Iran would be allowed to possess and operate a limited enrichment capability. That is no optimal solution, but it may turn out to be preferable to the alternatives.
Fabian Martin Lieschke is a student at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is currently an intern with the Center for American Progress, working on national security and non-proliferation issues.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Fabian Martn Lieschke: Germany Not Able to be Tough on Iran
- Philip Gordon: Beijing Must be Tougher on Tehran
- Sanam Vakil: Iran's Political Shadow War