We Are Running Out of Time on Iran

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Sarah Stern and Kyle Shideler
This past Friday, at a policy conference in Washington, Puneet Talwar, Senior Director for Iran, Iraq and the Gulf States at the White House National Security Council addressed the group. In his “on the record” remarks, Mr. Talwar calmly stated, “We have a three legged stool in our policy toward Iran: The first leg of the stool is engagement. The second is sanctions. And the third is our military option. We are keeping all of the options on the table.”This is eerily familiar. It is precisely the same statement we had heard from then candidate Obama when he came to address the AIPAC policy conference while running for office in 2008.

Since then, almost four years have elapsed, and the centrifuges have been assiduously spinning uranium to the highly enriched grade necessary for a nuclear bomb. It is said they now have enough enriched uranium for at least one nuclear bomb, and that they are hard at work at a delivery mechanism. As these words are written the Iranians are launching yet another atomic facility, deeply underground, beneath the mountains near the holy city of Qom.

One of the most chilling elements of the policy debate regarding the Iranian nuclear program is the bizarre time stasis in which those who oppose action against Iran exist. Warnings of an approaching nuclear deadline date back at least as far as 2004, when European experts warned Iran could be between five and six years away from a bomb. Even the widely panned and inaccurate 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which incorrectly claimed that Iran had halted production in 2003, set the earliest possible date for Iran to possess enough highly enriched Uranium for nuclear weapons at some time between 2009 and 2010. More recent assessments, such as that of Israeli military intelligence, put Iran is six months to one year away from producing a bomb. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN Iran was less than a year away from being “unstoppable” in its nuclear effort. Weapons inspector David Albright put the Iranians within six months of possessing enough nuclear material if they conduct a crash program, while a more hawkish estimate placed it as low as 62 days.

Yet none of this fazed the Obama Administration, which spent a substantial amount of energy in arm-twisting Congressmen in an effort to push back implementation dates for a new round of Iranian Central Bank sanctions proposed by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) from two months (already quite a long time) to half a year.  The Obama Administration had also been seeking wider latitude and discretion in applying the proposed sanctions.

According to one report, by Reuters, the Administration has received at least some of those demands, although Sen. Mark Kirk has said the Congressional negotiators resisted “most” of the administration’s attempts to weaken sanctions. A press release from the Armed Services Committee indicates that the implementation timeline survived Administration pressure, a positive sign.

But in what bizarre dimension of time and space does this administration reside where sanctions, implemented six months from now can halt a nuclear program that could potentially be completed, or at least “unstoppable” by the time they take effect?  And yet the officials from the same administration expect to have their cake and eat it too by the claim that “all options” including the military option are on the table, as did Mr. Talwar, or as referenced by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in his speech to the Saban Center.

One must doubt very seriously that anyone in the administration believes that boilerplate response, and for certain the Iranians do not considered it a credible threat. Are the Iranians expected to believe, that an administration which refuses to recover its own downed aircraft for fear of the reaction, will take a full scale military option against it? The same “military option” that has been “on the table” for the past decade, as Iran continued to pursue its nuclear ambitions?

The reality is that while American policy, focused on its table full of options, has remained static for the past ten years, Iran has quietly, persistently marched forward. All policy options, whether they are sanctions, or military force, or even diplomacy, are perishable goods. The longer you wait, the less valuable they become.

This is not to say that the sort of covert attacks against Iranian nuclear installations which appear to be underway , are not helpful, and that they have not bought us time. They are and they have.  But however much time such actions buy, it is not all the time in the world. We must stop treating the Iranian nuclear bomb as though it is some kind of desert mirage, which remains just out of reach, regardless of how much time is spent moving towards it.

The Kirk-Menendez Amendment was a noble and bipartisan move, of the kind all too rare in Washington. It is disturbing the amount of pressure the administration was willing to bring to bear against elected legislators, in the name of NOT bringing pressure against Iranian thugs. It stands also as evidence that American legislators can still come together and produce innovative and useful policy legislation, but only if they are willing to stand up to an administration which expends momentous energy to insure that nothing effective gets done.

There is a fourth option which neither President Obama or Mr. Talwar has discussed, or used, at all, but it is worth discussing briefly.

In June of 2009, after the elections, there were thousands of brave dissidents on the streets. Most people in Iran are under age 30. They despise the mullahcracy in which they have been raised. These people were crying out for a word of support from the leader of the free world, and nothing was said in their behalf for nearly two weeks, while skulls were being crushed and people have summarily disappeared from the streets.

During the era of the Soviet dissidents, we worked with one the “refuseniks”, and everyone knew some of their names.  But few known the names of those like Sa’id Malikpur, a 35 year old web designer from Canada who went to visit his sick father in Iran in 2008, and was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Prior to his incarceration, he had been developing a web site, which the regime says he used for posting pornographic images, but which Mr. Malikpur claims no knowledge of. He has been held in the notorious Evin prison, where he has been held in solitary confinement for over a year, and human rights groups say he has been routinely tortured. Mr. Malikpur has been sentenced to death.

It is absolutely unconscionable that we are not empowering the brave dissidents of Iran, and widely distributing these dramatic stories of human rights abuse. The window of opportunity was wide open in June of 2009. We must try, using the new technologies of the internet; Facebook and Twitter to see if we can pry open the window once again, and help these brave people overthrow this despicable regime.

And in terms of the other three options:  Despite the complacent assurances of some people in Washington, we are quickly running out of time.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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