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Study Group Urges “Strategic Engagement” with Iran

A new study by two centrist think tanks urges the Obama administration to pursue a policy of "strategic engagement" with Iran that would offer Tehran more attractive incentives to curb its nuclear program.

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Inter Press Service

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama should pursue a policy of "strategic engagement" with Iran that would offer Tehran more attractive incentives to curb its nuclear programme, according to a study group convened by two centrist Washington think tanks.

The group, which included more than 40 recognised Iran, foreign policy and non-proliferation experts, also warned that a military attack, either by the United States or Israel, on Iran would prove counterproductive in virtually every respect.

"A US decision to attack Iran, absent compelling evidence of an imminent Iranian attack on a US ally or facility, would destabilize the entire Middle East in ways that could do grave harm to US strategic, economic and political interests, alienate the entire Muslim world, fracture the coalition that has imposed sanctions on Iran, cement Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons and doom the democratic movement in Iran indefinitely," according to the 77-page report, 'Engagement, Coercion, and Iran's Nuclear Challenge'.

Moreover, it went on, Washington "should avoid any reference to the possibility of a preventive war or air strikes. US military capabilities are well known. Reminding Iran of them only strengthens the arguments of those in Tehran who press for acquiring nuclear weapons."

The report, which was released by the study group's convenors, the Congressionally-funded U.S. Institute of Peace and the Stimson Center, comes amid indications that Israel and its allies here are preparing a major new campaign to persuade Obama to take a tougher line with Tehran if sanctions and current diplomatic efforts fail to curb its nuclear programme by the spring.

"I(f) the international community, led by the United States, hopes to stop Iran's nuclear programme without resorting to military action, it will have to convince Iran that it is prepared to take such action," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a meeting of Jewish heavyweights in New Orleans last week shortly after reportedly delivering the same message privately to Vice President Joe Biden. "Containment will not work against Iran."

His remarks were followed by a column in this week's influential 'Defense News' by one of Netanyahu's advisers, Efraim Inbar, a political scientist of Israel's Bar-Ilan University, in which he pronounced diplomacy dead and concluded that "only military action can prevent the descent of the greater Mideast into a very brutish region."

At the same time, several Republican lawmakers closely associated with the right-wing leadership of the so-called "Israel Lobby" echoed his calls for a more confrontational stance.

In remarks to the annual Halifax International Security Forum and celebrated at length in this week's neo-conservative Weekly Standard, Sen. Lindsey Graham said Obama would help his own re-election chances in 2012 if he made "abundantly clear that all options (for halting Iran's nuclear programme) are on the table" – a phrase that is associated with taking military action.

If Tehran actually obtained a nuclear weapon, he said, Obama should act "not to just neutralise their nuclear programme & but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, neuter that regime. Destroy their ability to fight back."

Emboldened by their impending control of the House of Representatives, Republican leaders in the lower chamber are suggesting they will push the administration to increase pressure on Iran by tightening existing sanctions against companies, notably from Russia and China, that continue to do business with Iran and laying the groundwork for stronger measures.

The administration has pushed back modestly against the growing Israeli and Republican pressure. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who, among Obama's top advisers, is reported to be most strongly opposed to military action, publicly disagreed last week with Netanyahu's call to make the military threat more "credible", insisting that Washington's current strategy of diplomatic engagement and economic sanctions was "having an impact" on the Iranian leadership.

At a meeting of business executives here Tuesday, he said a military attack would only unite Iran behind its hard-line leadership and make Tehran's nuclear programme "deeper and more covert".

"The only long-term solution (to) avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it's not in their interest," Gates said. "Everything else is a short-term solution."

In order to reach that decision, however, the new report said Iran's leaders will need both positive incentives and greater clarity from Washington that it is prepared to accept Iran's right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium in exchange for a strict verification regime to ensure that none of it is being diverted to a weapons programme.

The report commended Obama for his initial efforts to reach out to Iran and his subsequent success in mustering international support for a "much tougher set of sanctions by the United Nations and by individual nations".

"However, for a host of reasons, not least of which is Tehran's unwelcoming response to the administration's early engagement efforts, US diplomacy has come to rest largely on punitive measures," it went on, adding that this "emphasis on sanctions and related coercive steps is unlikely to elicit the cooperation from Tehran that Washington seeks."

As a result, the study group concluded that the administration should "rebalance" its approach by taking of steps to induce that cooperation, including communicating with its European allies a "comprehensive picture of what Tehran has to gain from a mutually acceptable agreement on the nuclear issue" and "its readiness to discuss a range of issues of potential mutual concern," such as Afghanistan, drug-trafficking, and energy policy.

While the P5+1 is the appropriate venue to discuss the nuclear issue, according to the report, it should also conditionally support, rather than discourage or reject out of hand diplomatic initiatives by third countries – such as the one undertaken by Turkey and Brazil last spring to revive an earlier proposal to reprocess Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) to fuel Tehran's Research Reactor (TRR) that produces medical isotopes – that could help bridge differences between the parties.

That proposal is likely to come up in long-anticipated talks which both sides have agreed should take place Dec. 5. The parties have yet to agree, however, on whether the meeting will take place in Vienna or Geneva, as proposed by the European Union's foreign policy chief, or in Istanbul, as proposed by Tehran.

Washington should also be prepared to pursue direct talks with Tehran bilaterally, and U.S. diplomats in third nations and in multi-national organisations should interact with their Iranian counterparts, according to the report, which was co-authored by Stimson's Barry Blechman, and USIP's Daniel Brumberg and Steven Heydemann.

An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would prove as harmful to U.S. interests as an attack undertaken by Washington, according to the report, which called for increased consultations with the Jewish state to enlist its support for "strategic engagement".

"In the context of this dialogue, the US should emphasize that Washington would neither countenance nor support an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran," it said.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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