- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

As President Obama on Monday promised tough action to persuade Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, a major study prepared for the U.S. Air Force recommended “de-escalating” unilateral U.S. pressure on Tehran while strengthening multilateral sanctions and engaging Iran on regional security issues.

The new study by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit organization for research and analysis, dismisses hopes that bilateral U.S.-Iran talks alone will change Tehran’s behavior as “unrealistic” and advocates a broad international effort that would leverage incentives and punishment, depending on Iran’s response.

The report, a copy of which was given to The Washington Times in advance of its Tuesday release, comes as Mr. Obama set an informal deadline of the end of this year for diplomatic progress with Iran.

The Rand report - “Dangerous But Not Omnipotent” - compares current U.S. policy toward Iran to Cold War-like containment and attributes failure to Washington’s inability to “take into account features of the regional geopolitics and Iranian strategic culture.”

“Although more appealing, policies relying only on bilateral engagement and/or hopes for some sort of grand bargain are equally unrealistic,” the document says. “Efforts to foment internal unrest and play one faction off another within Iran are also likely to backfire because of limited U.S. understanding of Iran’s complex political landscape and the regime’s ability to manipulate such interference to its advantage.”

Instead, the study suggests “leveraging international pressure while unilaterally de-escalating U.S. rhetoric and policy toward Iran,” which would help “deprive the Iranian leadership of the ability to deflect domestic critique by focusing discontent solely” on the U.S. and the West.

Iran has rejected Western accusations that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program under the cover of a civilian effort. It has ignored a package of economic and political incentives from six major powers in exchange for suspending uranium enrichment, which can be used for bombs or civilian purposes. It has also defied three rounds of U.N. sanctions.

The U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have been trying to persuade Tehran to come clean on its nuclear program for more than four years. The Bush administration refused to participate in direct negotiations, however, unless the Iranians suspended uranium enrichment.

The Obama administration has dropped that precondition. Mr. Obama said Monday, after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that he hopes Iran will respond.

“But I assured the prime minister that we are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious,” Mr. Obama said.

Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton threatened “crippling sanctions” if Tehran continues to ignore U.S. overtures.

Rand’s study said the lack of response stems at least partly from “regime factionalism” and that “competing factions frequently use foreign policy issues to subvert or outmaneuver their rivals.”

Mr. Obama suggested that electioneering before Iran’s June 12 presidential elections might also be delaying an Iranian response.

Frederic Wehrey, senior policy analyst at Rand and the report’s main author, said that the Obama administration appears to be heeding some of Rand’s advice. Mr. Obama has referred to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” and offered Persian new year’s greetings to both the Iranian people and government.

The administration’s “conciliatory statements to Iran” are “encouraging moves in the direction of our study’s recommendations,” Mr. Wehrey said.

“The default temptation, however, is to rely solely on containment and a competitive balance-of-power strategy, which enjoys greater support among Arab states and Israel,” he said.

• Nicholas Kralev can be reached at nkralev@washingtontimes.com.

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