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Op-Ed

Deterring Iran on Friday the 13th

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Undeterred by the superstitions associated with Friday the thirteenth, negotiators are slated to meet in Istanbul on April 13 for new talks on resolving the threat of Iranian nuclear capacity. There, Iranian representatives will sit with the P5+1 group—the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain and France (the permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany.

This important meeting, the first of its kind in more than a year, comes at a crucial juncture in the international campaign to stop Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the intelligence services of nations around the world have determined that, contrary to its claim to be developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes only, Iran has in fact been moving forward with plans to acquire nuclear weaponry.

Will Iran come prepared to discuss in good faith a resolution or will this high-level gathering turn out to be another exercise in futility? Tehran, after all, has excelled in ignoring calls by the European Union, International Atomic Energy Agency, United Nations and United States to end its nuclear quest.

Should Iran achieve the capability to build the bomb, American interests would be severely compromised by increased instability in the Middle East. The nuclear prize would embolden Shiite Iran to commit aggression against Sunni nations in the region, and the latter, feeling threatened, would rush to join the nuclear club themselves. Nuclear proliferation could spread to non-state entities too, with Iran supplying missiles, or other devices, to terrorist cells. Oil supplies from the Gulf might be disrupted. And our democratic ally Israel, already under Iranian threat of being wiped off the map, would have its very existence endangered.

The international community has leveled a steadily mounting series of economic sanctions against Iran to get it to pull back, and more is on the way. On June 28, U.S. sanctions on foreign banks that buy oil from Iran come into effect. Three days later, on July 1, the European Union will end all purchases of Iranian oil, and several already have taken that action.

The prospect of new harsh blows to its already reeling economy from sharply reduced oil revenues may very well be the motivating factor driving Tehran to sit down with the P5+1. Since sanctions against Iran’s banking and energy sectors seem to be working, it is imperative to keep them in effect, and certainly not to loosen them, until their goal is attained.

President Obama and other world leaders have expressed a strong preference for a negotiated solution. But Tehran has a long history of dragging out fruitless discussions while working toward its nuclear goal, and the example of North Korea’s successful bluff-and-delay road to the bomb teaches a cautionary lesson. International patience is wearing thin. In the president’s words, “I believe there is a window of time to solve this diplomatically, but that window is closing.”

Secretary of State Clinton, for her part, has made it clear that U.S. policy “is one of prevention, not containment”—that is, America is on record declaring that it cannot live with a nuclear Iran. Mrs. Clinton has sent Iran a warning that it better mean business this time. “We enter into these talks with a sober perspective about Iran’s intentions,” she said. “It is incumbent upon Iran to demonstrate by its actions that it is a willing partner and to participate in these negotiations with an effort to obtain concrete results.” And in a clear warning to Iran that she can envision the use of force, she publicly suggested to the Gulf States that they work out a coordinated defense plan against a potential missile attack.

There remains a troubling ambiguity in the campaign to prevent Iran from going nuclear: where exactly is our red line? We must make clear that we will not wait until the actual construction of a bomb before taking action, but rather insist on no Iranian nuclear capability, since once Tehran crosses that threshold and the path to nuclear weaponry lies clearly before it, all the elements of geopolitical instability that threaten our interests already come into play.

Let us hope that Iran sees reason and the Istanbul talks lead to a resolution of the crisis. Otherwise, this Friday the thirteenth may prove unlucky indeed.


Michael Schmidt is director of the American Jewish Committee’s New York Office. Visit AJC.org to learn more.

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