In a forum at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, two speakers said they felt that U.S. and European Union sanctions provide leverage over Iran, but that the U.S. needs to establish itself as a credible military threat as it enters a new round of negotiations with the country that poses a huge threat because of its nuclear program.
The discussion was held to provide attendees with insight on Iran’s nuclear threat and its implications for the greater Middle East. Presented by the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel Action Center on Thursday of last week, it featured speakers David Ibsen, the executive director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), and Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in D.C.
Ibsen, a former policy analyst for the U.S. Department of State, said that sanctions have become “increasingly innovative” in targeting the Iranian economy and have had a tremendous effect. The greatest challenge, he said, is the U.S. resisting the temptation to offer premature sanction relief, which is what he said Iran wants.
To prevent progress in Iran’s continued nuclear activities, the U.S. has imposed sanction programs for many years. The sanctions, which most recently include the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, are imposed to block the transfer of weapon, target sections of Iran’s economy that correlate with its nuclear program and motivate Iran to meet its nonproliferation (anti-nuclear) obligations.
“Until we see reprioritization from Iran” we have to keep imposing sanctions, Ibsen said. “It’s important there will be no concessions made on our side,” until there is proof of nonproliferation, he added.
Ottolenghi, a political scientist and author who has done extensive research on Iran’s nuclear threat, said that the country is “close to the finish line” with its nuclear program. He noted that the problem is nobody wants to go to war with Iran, but at the same time no one wants to let the country’s nuclear program progress.
“Iran has concealed and deceived for a long time,” he said, while also adding that President Hassan Rouhani has provided a charm offensive.
Ottolenghi, who also has knowledge of Israel’s domestic politics and EU Middle East policy making, said the U.S. military lost credibility from Iran’s perspective, due to U.S. policy in Syria. Iran believes that Israel may order a strike, but not without U.S. support, he said.
He also mentioned that many Gulf Arab states are appalled by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent U.N. General Assembly statements and delighted by those of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his debut at the international gathering earlier this month, Rouhani had said that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu responded to Iran’s “smiley campaign” by saying that when it comes to comparing Rouhani and his predecessor, “Ahmadinejad was the wolf in wolf’s clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”
Netanyahu wants the international community to strengthen its sanctions against Iran, and Obama agreed with him that “words are not sufficient” when it comes to Rouhani, and actions are what is needed.
Despite the government shutdown, Ibsen said a transaction the UANI recently made was flagged because the organization possesses the keyword “Iran” in its name. This means someone at the Office of Foreign Assets Control is still on alert. Ottolenghi added that essential government workers he’s connected to have been answering his emails.
After both speakers gave their insight on the situation, Arielle Poleg, director of the Israel Action Center, served as a question moderator and provided the first question: Who’s buying the charm offensive?
Ottolenghi more or less said it wasn’t a matter of who is buying Rouhani’s lies, but a matter of who is choosing to. “Any diplomat will choose agreement over uncertainty,” he said, saying that they want to buy the charm offensive to avoid war.
This doesn’t mean people think Iran has changed, he implied, saying that there has been no apology from Iran for its numerous past actions, including the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis and the Hezbollah bombings in 1983. Apologies “would be signs of real change,” he said.
When asked whether Iran would eventually do a live test of a nuclear weapon, Ottolenghi said he didn’t know a definitive answer. “No country [that has used a nuclear weapon] hasn’t made sure they knew it would work,” he said.
A second Middle East forum on the same topic will be held Oct. 22 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. For more information, go to www.jcouncil.org.