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Why GOP Must Back Obama on Iran

Stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is a bi-partisan issue. It’s essential Republicans work with the Obama administration.

Why GOP Must Back Obama on Iran
Credit: Daniella Zalcman

With the US midterm elections behind us, and with the Democrats having lost control of the House of Representatives, the question on many lips is: What’s going to happen to Obama’s Iran strategy?

The Republican Party is understandably happy with its November 2 gains, but if it’s truly concerned about the dangers of a nuclear Iran, it needs to help, not hinder, Barack Obama’s approach toward the country. The fact is that whatever gripes Republicans may have about Obama’s domestic policies, his diplomatic drive and consensus building in the international community has done considerable damage to the Iranian regime’s global standing, as well as its business interests. Indeed, after only two years in office, Obama has done more to undermine the regime of Ali Khamenei over the course of two years than George W. Bush did in eight.

Of course there’s more than just a diplomatic dimension to this—many Republicans, unsatisfied with UN resolutions, are itching to take a tougher line on Iran, including through the use of military force.

But members of the GOP would do well to remember that much like on the question of sanctions, Obama has also done more than Bush in this regard, too. How? Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, which was issued in April, implicitly threatened Iran not just with conventional weapons, but also nuclear ones. According to Obama’s nuclear doctrine, the United States ‘will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treatyand in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’

The Syrians, despite their differences with the IAEA, can sleep easy at night. But the leaders of Iran can not.

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The effective singling out of Iran is an implied threat that the regime takes extremely seriously. What enrages it all the more is that the rest of the world has remained largely silent about the fact that Obama went out of his way to effectively exclude Iran from the list of countries that were not potentially in US nuclear crosshairs. This is largely because Obama has such credibility in the international community. If Bush had revised the US nuclear doctrine in this way, the criticism from non-aligned countries would have been much harder to dismiss.

So what should the Republicans do now?

First and foremost, they shouldn’t try to undermine Obama’s efforts at improving relations with Moscow. Russia is a key player on the Iran issue, and through patient diplomacy Obama has over the past two years managed to gradually coax Russia away from the Iran camp—to the point where Ahmadinejad, who welcomed Vladimir Putin with open arms in 2007, is now openly chastising Russia for refusing to sell the S-300 long-range missile system to Tehran. This decision is a major setback for the Islamic Republic, but getting here took significant energy on the part of the Obama administration to persuade Moscow that cooperating with the United States is a win-win situation.

But there’s also reportedly now been an Iranian offer to resume negotiations over its nuclear programme. This offer should be taken up and Republicans should avoid exerting pressure to reject them. Why? Not because the talks are likely to produce any sudden change in heart on the part of the regime. Quite the contrary—with each offer of talks, and each conference held, the Iranian government has done a better and better job of convincing the West and the international community that it isn’t willing to undertake meaningful compromise. Obama, on the other hand, has been.

His fuel swap offer for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) is a perfect case in point. The Obama administration talked with the Iranians, without preconditions, as Tehran had requested. Furthermore, Obama didn’t ask the Iranians to stop or even temporarily suspend uranium enrichment, again as per Iran’s demands. However, at the last minute, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refused to ship 75 percent of Iran’s Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel for the TRR, as requested by the west and Russia.

And it has all been downhill since then for the Iranian regime. Seeing as Khamenei has so little interest in turning back on the path toward a bomb, why not give him more chances to isolate himself? Agreeing to talks is an excellent way to do this.

Democrats for their part must also try to cooperate with the Republicans. Obama has done a good job so far, but could still learn one or two things from Republicans past—including Ronald Reagan. Human rights are a crucial issue, but one on which the Bush administration had little credibility in the eyes of the international community. President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the other hand did a good job of promoting human rights in the former Soviet Union through the Helsinki Process. This proved to be a powerful weapon in the fight against Soviet abuses, and in the long run the highlighting of such issues helped weaken the USSR’s legitimacy.

Obama should follow suit with Iran. Although one set of sanctions was passed in late September against Iranian government officials, members of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps and others over human rights abuses in Iran, this approach must be followed up in a determined—and highly public—way. In other words, not only should the US government and its allies name and shame more Iranian torturers and abusers of human rights, but they must also find ways of ensuring that the Iranian public is fully aware of these violations and what is being done in response. This means the Obama administration will have to do a much better job than it did in September of publicizing its efforts.

Republicans and Democrats can debate the merits of health care and what to do about financial regulations. But finding a lasting solution to the challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear programme will require members of both parties to be on the same page and co-ordinating their efforts, as a nuclear armed Iran isn’t in anyone’s interest.

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The drive to stop the Iranian regime from acquiring the bomb is a bi-partisan issue. If the incoming US Congress wants a peaceful solution, then it’s essential that it treats it as one.