Time for an Iranian Reset

by Robert Joseph
We should stop wasting time with an election that can’t bring reform, and commit to regime change.

June may prove to be a critical month in determining the outcome of Iran’s nuclear program and the future of the theocratic regime itself. This week, the IAEA Board of Governors will convene, and on June 14, Iran will hold its presidential election (with a possible runoff one week later).

The lead-up to both events has made clear that the policies pursued to date by the international community, and by the United States in particular, have failed to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear and democratic Iran. Now is the time for a fundamental change in policy.

The findings of the latest IAEA report, published earlier in May, set the state for the board’s meeting. Perhaps most telling is the relative quiet that has accompanied the report’s release. In large part, this is a measure of the success Iran has had in stonewalling the agency’s inspectors. After all, this is the 41st report of its kind, and many of the most disturbing conclusions have become standard features. For example, previous reports, like the current one, have expressed concern about possible “activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile” and have assessed as credible “information available to the Agency” regarding activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” These and other findings made headlines the first time they were reported, but now the shock has worn off.

Yet, the IAEA report documents substantial production increases in enriched uranium at both 5 percent and 20 percent levels, as well as increases in the number of operating cascades and the installation of advanced centrifuges that will produce more fissile material at a much faster pace. To date, Iran has produced at its declared facilities almost 9,000 kilograms of UF-6 (uranium hexafluoride) enriched up to 5 percent and over 300 kilograms of UF-6 enriched up to 20 percent. According to various estimates, with further processing to weapons grade, the 5 percent stockpile could provide enough material for six or seven bombs, with material for the first possibly taking as little as three to four months using existing centrifuges. The more urgent threat comes from the UF-6 enriched up to 20 percent, of which over 180 kg currently remain available for further enrichment. With only 70 more kg of 20 percent–enriched material, Iran could possess sufficient uranium for a weapon in a matter of weeks. At current production rates, Iran could quickly cross the red line set down by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September.

Despite the further advance of Iran’s nuclear program, the June board of governors’ meeting is likely to resemble past sessions — there is little likelihood of concrete results. But with time rapidly running out before Iran has the means to build its first nuclear bomb, the IAEA’s continued failure to act effectively will send a powerful signal. Tehran will likely conclude that its intransigence with the IAEA has little downside and that its strategy of delay in negotiations with the major powers continues to work. Jerusalem, if it hasn’t done so already, will likely conclude that the decade-long policies of engagement and sanctions have not halted Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and that the use of force – even with all of its drawbacks – offers the last opportunity to prevent Iran from going nuclear before the “window of action” closes.

During and after the meeting, Washington will likely repeat its well-known talking points but do little to change Iran’s or Israel’s calculations. If past patterns hold, U.S. policy makers, while expressing concern, will seek to find hope that the presidential elections may provide a new avenue for diplomacy. The assumption, as always, will be that sufficient time remains for negotiations.

Iran’s presidential elections will follow the IAEA meeting by one week. While the vote has yet to be taken, the result is preordained. Through what the regime itself calls “elections engineering,” the Guardian Council has eliminated all candidates who do not strictly follow the dictates of Supreme Leader Khamenei and the mullahs. This time around, to prevent a repeat of the popular uprising that followed the 2009 election, the council has disqualified the candidacy of anyone who might support even the most modest reform agenda. This includes past stalwarts of the regime, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, other so-called “moderates,” and even current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favored candidate, Esfandiar Mashaei.

Such actions expose the deep divisions that have emerged within the ruling class during the last decade and especially in the past four years of Ahmadinejad’s second term. Most important, these actions indicate the growing vulnerability and desperation of a regime under pressure for its corruption, its political repression, and the economic disruption of sanctions. As with all dictatorships, the greatest threat to the Iranian regime comes from its own people. The leaders are becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from their citizens. Official manipulation of the June election will only further alienate the Iranian people and the fractures within the regime.

Basing U.S. policy on the hope that something positive will come from a new Iranian president — that he will be “someone we can do business with” — will only ensure a continuation of our serial failures. (The emerging electoral favorite is Saeed Jalili, the former hardline nuclear negotiator whose election slogan is “No compromise. No submission.”) The facts give us no reason to anticipate that the Khamenei-led regime will become more moderate or alter its nuclear ambitions due to sanctions or internal dynamics.

Tinkering with current policies will not achieve a non-nuclear and democratic Iran. Instead, it is time to “reset” U.S. policy and recognize the need for regime change. This change must come from within Iran and be led by Iranians, but the United States and the international community can provide essential support to encourage and strengthen the opposition inside and outside of Iran.

On June 22, tens of thousands of Iranian exiles from around the world will meet near Paris to demonstrate support for the establishment of a secular, non-nuclear, and democratic Iran. Led by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, this is expected to be one of the largest gatherings of the Iranian opposition to date. This is a group at the top of the mullahs’ enemies list, relentlessly persecuted at home and abroad because of its continuing threat to the regime. Fulfilling U.S. commitments to protect its members still residing in exile in Iraq is a moral imperative. Supporting the efforts of the Iranian opposition is sound policy. This is a good place to begin.

— Robert Joseph was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007.