Posted: Monday, October 5, 2009 8:01 pm
By: Argus Hamilton
WASHINGTON — After 30 years of estrangement that began with the Carter administration giving safe haven to the deposed Shah of Iran, the Obama administration has authorized talks to proceed in Geneva with Iran. Engaging with Iran without setting pre-conditions is a significant reversal of U.S. policy under several previous presidents, and there is of course no assurance the talks will lead to success in terms of curtailing Iran’s apparent nuclear ambitions.
Conservatives are critical of President Obama, warning that he is naïve about Iranian intentions and worried that talks will simply buy time for the regime to build up a nuclear capability. There is another viewpoint, which is that Obama for all his newness on the global stage is engaging the Iranians from a surprisingly strong position. The revelation last week that the Iranians are building a secret uranium enrichment facility next to a military base housing the elite Revolutionary Guard got the attention of world leaders meeting in New York last week, giving Obama new leverage to ramp up pressure on the Iranian regime.
Apparently U.S. intelligence has been monitoring the site for some time, dating well back into the Bush administration. Because of the failures of intelligence that clouded the Bush years and helped launch an unnecessary war with Iraq, the Bush administration kept quiet about the facility and so did Obama until he was certain that U.S. intelligence had the goods. That moment arrived when the facility, which had been under construction for years, reached completion and was deemed too small to process uranium for peaceful use, and likely was built only to weaponize uranium for a nuclear bomb.
Administration officials are deliberately vague about the timeline, but it looks like the definitive word on the facility arrived in Washington right around the same time the Iranians discovered their security had been breached. Realizing they had been caught red-handed, the Iranians sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency revealing the facility’s existence, anticipating that Obama and the Western allies would be calling them out when they convened at the United Nations. U.S. intelligence agencies have had more than their share of embarrassments, so this was cause to celebrate. This is an intelligence coup, and while Obama stood with his British and French counterparts to make the information public and share the credit, it was clearly an American accomplishment. It marks the beginning of a new era with Iran not only in terms of engagement, but in terms of developing a network of human intelligence on the ground in the country. For too long, U.S. intelligence has been overly reliant on electronic surveillance at the expense of the human input that can give perspective to what the high-tech gadgetry conveys.
One of the best ways to get on-the-ground information is through dissidents, and we know from watching the street protests in Tehran that there are plenty of people in the country unhappy with the regime and willing to take risks to express themselves. It’s difficult to recruit people willing to share information and inform on their leaders when a government is popular. The divisions within Iran created by last summer’s fraud-ridden election have opened the door for sources willing to engage with America and the West.
The American people do not view the Iranian people as hostile. Indeed when the Empire State Building was lit up in green recently to mark the 75th anniversary of the Wizard of OZ, many people saw it as a sign of solidarity with the protesters in Tehran since green is their color. The diplomats in Geneva are unlikely to have a breakthrough anytime soon, but the cracks in the Iranian regime are there for all to see and they could force change in the blink of an eye.
Published in The Messenger 10.05.09