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by James Phillips and Peter Brookes


The Triumph of Wishful Thinking Over Past Experience

We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. And so it's unacceptable. And I will do everything that's required to prevent it. And we will never take military options off the table.
— Barack Obama, Second Presidential Debate[1]

President-elect Obama, you are right that the United States cannot allow Iran to attain a nuclear weapon. Your statement during the second presidential debate indicates that you appreciate the unacceptable dangers posed by a nuclear-capable Iran. But statements like the following indicate a lack of understanding about the past record of failed attempts to negotiate with Iran:

Question: [W]ould you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?...

Obama: I would.[2]

Your Administration must learn from the experience of previous Administrations and European governments that have sought negotiations with Iran. The diplomatic path is not promising. Iran has strongly resisted international efforts to pressure it to abide by its legal commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and halt its suspect nuclear activities. Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defiantly proclaimed last year that "Iran has obtained the technology to produce nuclear fuel, and Iran's move is like a train...which has no brake and no reverse gear."[3]

The diplomatic route would be more promising if the regime in Tehran was motivated primarily by a desire to advance Iran's national interests and promote the welfare of its people, but Iran's revolutionary Islamist regime is more interested in maintaining a brutal grip on power and spreading Islamist revolution. Ahmadinejad rose through the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was created after Iran's 1979 revolution to defend and promote Ayatollah Khomeini's radical vision of revolutionary Shia Islam, and is committed to returning to the ideological purity of the revolution's early years.

But we must be careful not to personalize the problem. Iran's nuclear program began under President Rafsanjani and flourished under President Khatami. Both were considered "moderates," extolled by some observers as leaders with whom the West could do business, but both also practiced diplomacy by taqiyyah, which is a religiously sanctioned form of dissimulation or duplicity.

If you sat down with President Ahmadinejad without preconditions, as you said you would, you would hand him an opportunity to practice his own taqiyyah, strut on the world stage, lecture you about the supposed superiority of Iran's Islamic system, and assert Iran's claim to leadership of the Muslim world. Such a meeting would dishearten Iran's repressed opposition, strengthen Ahmadinejad's hard-liners at the expense of reformist groups, give Ahmadinejad a boost in popularity that could greatly improve his chances of being re-elected if the meeting occurred before Iran's June elections, and allow him to go through the motions of a diplomatic dialogue to defuse international pressure while Iran continues its nuclear efforts.

Your nominee as Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), rejected meeting with Ahmadinejad without preconditions, saying during the July 2007 YouTube debate that "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes." The next day, she blasted your willingness to sit down with Iran's president: "I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naïve."[4] You should take the advice of your nominee and rethink your position on meeting with Iran's leader.

The U.S. should mobilize an international coalition to raise the diplomatic, economic, domestic political, and potential military costs to Tehran of continuing to flout its obligations under its nuclear safeguards agreements. This coalition should seek to isolate the regime, weaken it through targeted economic sanctions, explain to the Iranian people why their government's nuclear policies will impose economic costs and military risks on them, contain and deter Iran's military power, and encourage democratic change.

To drive home your point that an Iranian nuclear weapon is "unacceptable," you should craft an Iran policy that includes the following important elements:

The U.S. could probably deter Iran from a direct nuclear attack by threatening massive retaliation and the assured destruction of the Iranian regime, but there is lingering doubt that Ahmadinejad, who reportedly harbors apocalyptic religious beliefs regarding the return of the Mahdi, would have the same cost-benefit calculus about a nuclear war that other leaders would have. Moreover, his regime might risk passing nuclear weapons off to terrorist surrogates in hopes of escaping retaliation for a nuclear surprise attack launched by an unknown attacker.

Moreover, even if Iran could be deterred from considering such attacks, an Iranian nuclear breakout would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Algeria to seek to build or acquire their own nuclear weapons. Each new nuclear power would multiply the risks and uncertainties in an already volatile region.

Iran also might be emboldened to step up its support for terrorism and subversion, calculating that its nuclear capability would deter a military response. An Iranian miscalculation could easily lead to a military clash with the U.S. or an American ally that would impose exponentially higher costs than would be imposed by a war with a non-nuclear Iran. All of these risks must be considered before deciding on how to proceed if diplomacy fails to prevent the prospect of a nuclear Iran.


Preventing a nuclear Iran is one of the most difficult and dangerous problems that confronts your Administration. You should learn from the experience of past efforts to negotiate with Iran and deal with Tehran from a position of strength, stressing sticks rather than carrots, because for Iran, a nuclear weapon is the biggest carrot. Targeted economic sanctions and the possible use of military force are your biggest sources of leverage. The only hope of aborting the Iranian nuclear bomb lies in convincing Iran's leaders that the economic, diplomatic, and possible military costs of continuing their nuclear program are so high that they threaten the regime's hold on power. Any talks with Iran should be structured to produce quick results and preclude Tehran from stretching out the negotiations indefinitely.

You should rule out a presidential meeting with Iranian leaders until they have agreed to end their nuclear weapons efforts in a verifiable manner based on intrusive international inspections. Accepting anything less will only give Iran's radical regime yet another opportunity to renege on their commitments when it suits their purposes.  


[1]CNN, "Transcript of Second McCain, Obama Debate," October 7, 2008, at 10/07/presidential.debate.transcript (December 3, 2008).

[2] CNN, "Part I: CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate Transcript," July 23, 2007, at /POLITICS/07/23/debate.transcript (December 3, 2008).

[3] Reuters, "Iran's Atomic Work Has No 'Reverse Gear,'" February 25, 2007, at article/topNews/idUKBLA53622220070225 (December 3, 2008).

[4] Associated Press, "Clinton: Obama Is 'Naïve' on Foreign Policy," July 24, 2007, at (December 3, 2008).

James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute, at The Heritage Foundation.

This is the December 03, 2008 Special Report #28 from the Heritage Foundation; it is archived at


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