Preemptive Concessions Won’t Halt Iran’s Nuclear Quest

Don’t be fooled into thinking Iran's new president is a moderate.

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With the upcoming inauguration of Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani this weekend, some U.S. policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits argue that Washington should offer preemptive concessions to persuade Tehran into yet another round of nuclear negotiations. The trouble is Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – not the Iranian president – remains the ultimate decision-maker on the country's nuclear program. If the United States and like-minded partners have any hope of compelling the Iranian regime to abandon its dangerous nuclear ambitions, then they should maximize economic and diplomatic pressure now, before Iran achieves nuclear weapons-making capability.

President Rouhani's inauguration will not alter Iran's quest to improve its capability to make nuclear weapons on ever shorter notice. Not only does Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retain full control over Iran's nuclear program, but Rouhani's track record indicates he is not the "moderate" some in Washington had hoped he would be. As Mark Dubowitz, eexecutive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently noted, Rouhani "is regime loyalist, and a master of nuclear deception, who has played an intimate role in the belligerent foreign policies of the Islamic Republic since its founding."

Furthermore, Rouhani was one of only a handful of selected politicians approved by the Iranian regime to run in presidential elections this year. Tehran's clerical leadership blocked some 600 candidates from appearing on the ballot, with just eight ultimately allowed to run.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

With Iran's current regime unlikely to abandon its nuclear program in the absence of more pressure, Congress is taking action. Yesterday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation – the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 – authored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce of California, and co-sponsored by Ranking Member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. and 372 other members of Congress. The bill incorporates aspects of Senate legislation introduced by Sens. Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, and Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, which seeks to block Tehran's access to non-local currencies.

Moreover, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act would reduce Iranian oil exports by one million barrels per day by the end of 2014. While the steady implementation of aggressive sanctions has had a clear impact on Iran's energy production, Iran's oil exports remain a critical source of revenue for the regime. The Congressional Research Service notes: "Oil exports fund nearly half of Iran's government expenditures, and Iran's oil exports have declined to about 1.25 million barrels – a halving from the 2.5 million barrels per day Iran exported during 2011." The report adds: "This drop is expected to deprive the Iranian government of over $50 billion in revenue for all of 2013."

However, some in Washington still believe that alleviating, not intensifying, sanctions is necessary to encouraging Iran to agree to a diplomatic solution. This week, a handful of lawmakers wrote a letter to House leadership urging a delay to the Royce's Nuclear Iran Prevention Act for fear that the bill would impair the Obama administration's ability to use concessions on sanctions as a tactic in negotiations with Iran. They argue that, in advance of Rouhani's upcoming inauguration, additional sanctions would undermine the alleged moderate's attempt to reach a diplomatic agreement with the West. These lawmakers, however, ignore Iran's long history of using negotiations as a stalling tactic to advance its nuclear program.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Independent analysts have repeatedly warned that the window of opportunity to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons-making capability is rapidly closing. Maseh Zarif of the American Enterprise Institute has shown that Iran has completed many of the prerequisites for producing a nuclear weapon. Blaise Misztal of the Bipartisan Policy Center reports that Iran could be able to produce sufficient quantities of highly-enriched uranium for a weapon this month. David Albright and Christina Walrond of the Institute for Science and International Security assess that Iran will achieve "the technical capability to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium from its safeguarded stocks of low enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive, without being detected" in mid-2014.

Furthermore, Misztal and his former colleague Michael Makovsky note that Iran is simultaneously expanding its capacity to rapidly produce highly-enriched uranium on shorter notice with the installation of new advanced centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow. They write that while "Iran might be delaying the day when it is ready to make the dash to a nuclear weapon, but is ensuring that the dash will be as short as possible."

If the crisis over Iran's nuclear program is to have any chance for a peaceful resolution, then the United States and like-minded nations must take all possible non-military actions, now rather than later, to compel Iran to halt its drive to nuclear weapons-making capability and comply fully with its international obligations. First, lawmakers can ensure the Obama administration fully implements existing sanctions. Second, the United States and other nations can do more to restrict Iran's energy exports. And third, Washington can work with allies and partners to halt Tehran's access to non-local currencies.

The crisis over Iran's nuclear program has reached a moment of truth. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons-making capability, then there will be disastrous consequences for the security and interests of the United States and its allies and the future stability of the Middle East. U.S. policymakers and lawmakers must show resolve against Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and use intensified pressure – not preemptive concessions – to persuade Iran to abandon its dangerous nuclear ambitions.

Evan Moore and Patrick Christy are Senior Policy Analysts at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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