Obama Can't Miss Another Opportunity in Iran

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For centuries, leaders of what is now modern-day Iran have evoked the legendary Cyrus Cylinder – the legal instrument dating back to 539 B.C.E. by which Cyrus II, the greatest of the Persian emperors, legitimized his rule, promoted civil and religious tolerance and even permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem, where they would rebuild the Second Temple – as a symbol of national greatness.

In contrast, the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran today have rejected the values of the Cyrus Cylinder and are instead using their undeterred march to obtain weapons-usable nuclear technology – in violation of their international obligations – as a symbol of national greatness. If Iran's theocratic rulers succeed, it would be catastrophic, not only for U.S. and allied security interests and global stability, but for the Iranian people as well.

Despite a decade’s worth of diplomatic outreach and economic pressure by the United States and the international community to persuade the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions, Iran is quickly approaching "breakout nuclear weapons-making capability" – that is, the capability to make nuclear weapons on such short notice that international inspectors would face great difficulties catching a violation in time. Analysts now estimate Iran could reach this point by mid-2014, if not sooner.

Iran is pursuing breakout nuclear weapons-making capability, in no small part, as means to preserve the regime. If the regime in Tehran gets breakout capability, it very well may become emboldened not only to escalate its support of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond, but also to blackmail and coerce concessions from its neighbors and the international community, while further stamping out domestic challenges to its rule.

Although the Obama administration and congressional lawmakers have sought to financially squeeze the regime in Tehran, international sanctions, so far, have lacked the severeity required to persuade Iranian leaders to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

For instance, Iran continues to trade natural gas for precious metals such as gold – especially from Turkey. This influx will not stop until a new set of sanctions comes online this July, which could give Iran sufficient time to posture itself to obtain breakout capability next year.

Washington should take further steps to close financial loopholes that allow the regime in Tehran to conduct international transactions in foreign currencies. A bipartisan group of senators led by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced legislation this week towards that end. The Obama administration and congressional lawmakers should work quickly to implement this critical form of economic pressure.

What’s more, the United States and the international community should hold the Islamic Republic accountable for any and all abuses in the run up to – and during – Iran's presidential election in June 2013.  In June 2009, the Obama administration’s decision to stand on the sidelines during the Green Movement’s massive protests in Iran that followed the country’s fraudulent presidential election was a great mistake—and a missed opportunity.  The protests reflected the widespread and profound discontent among the Iranian people with the ruling regime. Yet as many thousands of Iranians were silenced and brutally attacked by regime militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Obama flatly avoided the issue. Since that summer, Iran has arrested opposition leaders, placed presidential candidates under house arrest, and stifled further popular protests against the regime.

As the June 2013 presidential election nears, regime elites have already stepped up actions to ensure the election of their own chosen leaders. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that "[t]he Iranian government has launched a pre-emptive crackdown." This includes Internet blackouts, creating a special cyber-unit to monitor social media sites for opposition gatherings, suspending university classes and arresting a prominent online news editor. Tehran could soon pull the entire country out of the Internet's reach by deploying an Iranian intranet system that can be more easily monitored by government authorities.  It is therefore critical that the United States now lead the international community in making common cause with Iranian reformers, liberals and the broader opposition movement. 

The Cyrus Cylinder shows us how Persia rose to greatness not through intolerance and suppression, but rather through its unprecedented respect for other cultures and peoples, including its own. As the world must now reckon with grave and growing threats from the nation that produced the Cyrus Cylinder, it is strange that we must remind Iranian leaders of their own history.

Robert Zarate is the Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, where Joshua Brewer is a Research Intern

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