Taking the Iranian Nuclear Threat Seriously

Obama Administration Approach Strikes the Right Balance

The United States must continue to use the most effective tools available to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, write Rudy deLeon and Brian Katulis.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks as Treasury Secretary  Tim Geithner listens during a news conference about new sanctions the United States is taking to increase pressure on Iran.<font color= (AP/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner listens during a news conference about new sanctions the United States is taking to increase pressure on Iran. (AP/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, report once again underscores Iran’s refusal to come clean about its nuclear program. Iran could quickly defuse concerns about its real intentions by allowing international inspection of all of its programs and facilities. But it won’t.

Instead, President Barack Obama and his administration are ratcheting up the pressure on the Iranian regime, building an international coalition that is increasingly isolating and weakening Iran—making it pay a price for not living up to its international responsibilities.

Recent Iranian behavior such as the assassination plot on the Saudi ambassador to the United States and the sacking of the British embassy in Tehran demonstrates Iran’s contempt for its responsibilities while displaying its overall strategic weakness.

The Obama administration should press forward with its strategy of expanding our options to deal with this threat. Iran continues the research necessary to develop nuclear weapons—even as uncertainty remains whether the Iranian regime has made a formal decision to obtain a nuclear weapon. At a time of great change and instability in the Middle East, a nuclear Iran would be an extraordinarily negative and destabilizing development—one that would undermine U.S. strategic goals in the region.

That’s why the Obama administration has adopted a tough approach to Iran, centered on three main components:

  • Unprecedented defense cooperation with regional allies that enhances their security and independence
  • An international coalition that holds Iran accountable for its actions
  • Smart, targeted economic sanctions

A look at each of these tools demonstrates how, in concert, they provide the means to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions without sparking a thoroughly unnecessary and misguided war.

Unprecedented defense cooperation with regional allies

The Obama administration has made substantial investments in working closely with regional allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to respond to Iran’s nuclear program and Iranian support for terrorist groups. The United States has provided unprecedented military aid to Israel since President Obama came into office, including investments in missile-defense systems. In addition, the United States has offered Saudi Arabia modern and upgraded capabilities, as well as enhanced defense cooperation with a range of partners in the region including the United Arab Emirates.

Furthermore, the Obama administration realigned regional missile-defense capabilities to better address the threat from Iranian missiles, securing Turkey’s consent to host an early-warning radar on its soil—a radar that will monitor Iran for any missile launches. The administration has also accelerated the deployment of missile-defense systems to Europe that can protect our allies from Iranian missiles.

For decades the United States has maintained a military footprint and deployed its forces in the Middle East with good reason: to safeguard access to international waters, repel armed aggression, respond to terrorist threats, and uphold international law. Even as it ends its military commitment in Iraq and draws down in Afghanistan, the United States will remain vigorously engaged in the region.

An international coalition holding Iran accountable

The second main element of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran is to engage global and regional actors to isolate Tehran diplomatically. One overarching goal of the Obama administration’s national security strategy is to restore the international systems aimed at monitoring and reducing global stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration pragmatically recognizes that an Iran with nuclear weapons undermines the broader effort to reduce the threats posed by nuclear weapons. An Iran with nuclear weapons is not the problem of any one country—it is a global problem that needs a global solution.

The result is unprecedented international cooperation on many levels—at the U.N. Security Council, with key allies in Europe, and reaching out to include China and India. Working in this multilateral framework gives this effort broader legitimacy. The result is an Iranian regime that is more diplomatically isolated today than ever before.

Smart, targeted economic sanctions

The global diplomatic full-court press laid the foundation for the third key element of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran—economic sanctions that undermine supporters of the Iranian regime. And it appears the sanctions are having an impact: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted that Iran’s banking sector is facing serious problems as a result of U.S. and international sanctions.

After last month’s IAEA report detailing Iran’s past and current nuclear weapons-related research, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada are moving swiftly to place a new round of sanctions on Iranian companies and financial institutions. The Central Bank of Iran will now be considered a “primary money-laundering concern.” These moves increase the pressure on Tehran without fracturing the diplomatic coalition arrayed against it or hurting the global economy as Europe’s economic prospects dim.

The challenge ahead for the United States is to strike the right balance between the many tools it has at its disposal to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. This means President Obama should be given the support and flexibility necessary to manage the complex coalition that eliminating the threat from Iran’s nuclear weapons program requires, not forced into a straitjacket of implementing hardline, unilateral actions or hastily turning to military options that currently present high risks for low chances of success. These are challenging times and the path forward will not be found in political talking points that too quickly jump to unilateral solutions.

The Obama administration today has placed America in a much stronger position to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. And that position neither downplays the threats nor advocates risky options not likely to advance long-term stability. This is a wise course of action.

Rudy deLeon is Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy and Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Rudy deLeon

Senior Fellow

 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow