How to Deal with Iran

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP Images
A poster of Ayatollah Khamenei hanging behind a missile on display at a military exhibition marking the twenty-eighth anniversary of the beginning of the Iran–Iraq war, Tehran, September 23, 2008

Three of the most pressing national security issues facing the Obama administration—nuclear proliferation, the war in Iraq, and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan—have one element in common: Iran.1 The Islamic Republic has made startling progress over the past few years in its nuclear program. Setting aside recent, misleading reports that Iran already has enough nuclear fuel to build a weapon, the reality is that Tehran now has five thousand centrifuges for enriching uranium and is steadily moving toward achieving the capability to build nuclear bombs.2 Having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon is not the same thing as having one, and having a large stock of low-enriched uranium is not the same as having the highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb. But the Obama administration cannot postpone dealing with the nuclear situation in Iran, as President Bush did.

Iran is closely implicated in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. Iran’s influence in Iraq is well known. As Michael Massing has reported in these pages:

The SIIC [Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council], the main government party, was founded in Iran and remains so close to Tehran that many Iraqis shun it for having a “Persian taint.” Iran is erecting mosques and power plants in the Shiite south and investing heavily in construction and communications in the Kurdish north.3

But Iran also has critical interests in Afghanistan, its neighbor to the east, where it has long opposed the Taliban and is concerned to avoid the chaos that would result from the fall of the increasingly threatened Karzai government. The Iranian government places a high priority on defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban—extremist Sunni groups which it views as direct threats to Iran’s Shiites—as well as on reducing Afghanistan’s rampant drug trade.

Of course the United States has other important concerns about Iran, including Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and the threat it poses to Israel—particularly in view of the recent conflict in Gaza. But the paramount issues of Iran’s nuclear enrichment and its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, we argue, are closely interrelated, and the way they are dealt with could determine the US’s ability to address other problems in the US–Iranian relationship.

Under President Bush, Iran’s nuclear program and its role in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated as wholly separate issues. The US government largely refused to talk to Iran on the nuclear issue and instead relied on sanctions and hectoring. By contrast, on the issue of Iraq, it agreed to ambassadorial talks, although these were largely limited to discussions of Iraq’s internal security issues, including Iranian provision of weapons to insurgents. On Afghanistan, aside from occasional allegations…

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