DON’T LET UP ON IRAN – Too Late for Minor Concessions

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In an early 2009 interview on the ABC News Program This Week, then President-elect Obama reiterated his goal of working directly with Iran to improve relations and halt its self-described peaceful nuclear program. Obama told program host George Stephanopoulos that he wanted to adopt, “a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk” to the Iranians, while making clear, “that we also have certain expectations.”

True to his word, President Obama offered Iran an olive branch. True to its previous behavior, the Islamic regime broke the branch in half. Obama received significant criticism, some deserved, some not, for his administration’s failed diplomatic initiative. Perhaps by design, Iran’s rebuke induced more potent sanctions supported by a broader world-wide coalition resulting in palatable damage to Iran’s economy. Harder biting sanctions are scheduled to take affect this summer.

Following the first meeting in over a year on Tehran’s nuclear program in Istanbul, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton announced on Saturday an agreement between Iran and the so-called P-5 Plus 1 Group: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the U.S., plus Germany, to hold additional talks in Baghdad on May 23. While the P-5 Plus 1 Group’s ultimate goal remains Iran’s verifiable cessation of its campaign to acquire nuclear weapons technology, Iran seeks the lowering of international financial sanctions which have rendered its banks incapable of performing international business.

The fact that the Iranian representatives to the Istanbul meeting kept their rhetoric to a minimum helped create the environment for announcing the May 23rd meeting. Unfortunately however, an almost 20 year pattern exists of Iran pushing towards its nuclear weapons goal, making minor cosmetic concessions when pressured to assuage international opinion all the while forging ahead in secret. With sanctions for the first time truly hurting Iran, now is not the time to lower existing or postpone new sanctions in exchange for minor unverifiable concessions.

Tremendous pressure exists on the P-5 Plus 1 Group to avoid further conflict in the Middle East. Understanding this, Iran will attempt to exploit the need for stability by appearing to play within the rules. As we have learned on repeated occasions, it is nothing more than a ruse to gain additional time to master the nuclear fuel cycle.

Obama paid dearly in political capital for his engagement with Iran. Demanding anything short of complete verifiable cessation of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, however, would undermine the hard earned benefits of that policy. Worse, lowering the pressure on Iran will create the opposite effect on the region.

Whether sanctions possess enough strength to provoke Iran’s nuclear disarmament remains a very open question. But as long as the international community pursues this route, that road cannot be interrupted.

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