Lieberman: A Dangerous New Phase in Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program


joe-liebermanBy Joe Lieberman

The latest political upheaval in Egypt and the worsening violence in Syria are daily reminders of how important the Middle East is to American interests. But the most dangerous challenge to U.S. national security brewing in the region continues to be the Iranian regime’s pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability. Now the struggle by America and its allies to stop the Iranian nuclear project is entering a critical new phase.

Reaction to the election last month of Hasan Rouhani as Iran’s president has generally divided into two camps. The first sees the victory by Mr. Rouhani-reputedly the most moderate of the approved candidates-rekindling hope of a diplomatic breakthrough over Tehran’s illicit nuclear program. The second holds that Mr. Rouhani’s election won’t alter Iran’s nuclear strategy. This is either because the real political power in Iran is vested not in the presidency but in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has shown no inclination toward compromise, or because Mr. Rouhani himself, despite his rhetoric, is a consummate regime insider and thus unlikely to change.

There is, however, a third possibility to consider: that the Iranian regime under Mr. Rouhani will shift its international behavior, but that Tehran, rather than abandon its goal of a nuclear-weapons capability, will instead simply adopt a shrewder, more effective approach.

When it comes to international diplomacy, Iran’s leaders have been their own worst enemies in recent years. For decades, Tehran sponsored terrorism, engaged in illicit nuclear work and violated Iranians’ human rights, with little reproof from outsiders. But over the past eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president, his outrageous rhetoric, fraud-tainted re-election and vicious crackdowns against peaceful protesters have made the true nature of the Iranian regime considerably harder for the world to ignore.

As important has been Iran’s refusal to make even minor concessions in nuclear talks with the P5+1-the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany-or with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The obstinance has turned governments against Tehran that might otherwise have been friendly. It has also made possible previously unthinkable sanctions against Iran, such as an oil embargo.

The risk with Mr. Rouhani, who takes office next month, is that the Iranians will adopt a smarter strategy that accepts tactical compromises at the negotiating table, but only to buy the time and space necessary to push ahead with the most important elements of their nuclear program.

This is precisely what Mr. Rouhani himself boasted in a 2004 speech that he had done as Iran’s nuclear negotiator: suspending enrichment as a sop to the international community, even as Iran moved forward on other fronts. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium conversion] facility in Isfahan,” he said in the speech in Iran. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Such a strategy is even more dangerous today because the Iranians are so much closer to the nuclear finish line. Tehran is installing approximately 200 advanced centrifuges a month. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is rapidly installing hundreds of next-generation centrifuges that, within a year or sooner, will give the regime the capacity to produce enough weapons-grade uranium in just a few weeks to produce a nuclear weapon.

Iran is also making progress on a plutonium reactor that could be operational as early as next year and provide the regime with an alternative path to the bomb.

The Obama administration reportedly is interested in reaching out to Mr. Rouhani. That will be worthwhile-if the administration also quickly tests his seriousness and doesn’t allow him to play for time.

The U.S. and its allies should refuse to offer any sanctions relief unless Iran immediately stops all activities that could lead to a nuclear-weapons breakout. This means, at minimum, a freeze on the installation of next-generation centrifuges, suspension of 20% enrichment and an end to work on the plutonium reactor.

The U.S. and its allies should state a willingness to move quickly to a diplomatic endgame with Tehran if Iran takes these steps. But we must also make clear that, if Iran doesn’t agree, we are ready to ratchet up pressure on the regime through more economic sanctions and to take military action if Iran’s nuclear program continues advancing.

In either case, Mr. Rouhani’s reputation as a moderate will have been tested, his true interests revealed.

His election already has pointed to a deeper truth about our dispute with Iran. Some have argued that it wouldn’t make a difference if democracy came to Iran, since the Iranian people overwhelmingly support the nuclear program as a symbol of national pride and prestige.

The presidential election last month indicated why that view is mistaken. The majority of Iranians clearly showed that they ranked improved relations with the rest of the world, and the economic prosperity this could bring, over nuclear weapons and a foreign policy of “resistance.” If Iran’s elections were free, fair and open to all candidates, and the winners truly in charge of the country, Tehran’s policy would reflect this.

I hope that President-elect Rouhani delivers the change in priorities that the Iranian people voted for. But in light of the undemocratic and extremist character of Iran’s regime, and its past patterns of behavior, we must also prepare for the worst case-that Tehran under Mr. Rouhani will become an even more devious and dangerous adversary.

Mr. Lieberman, a former four-term U.S. senator from Connecticut, is senior counsel at the New York law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman.


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